Designer Genes

The habanada pepper, the farmer’s daughter melon, the amber delight squash, the salt and pepper cucumber—all of these new varieties (and more!) were created by Michael Mazourek ’99 in his lab and greenhouse at Cornell University. One of the nation’s leading plant breeders, Mazourek has turned standard vegetables into genetic works of art that resist disease and drought.

The habanada pepper has no heat (hence the “nada”) but lots of flavor. The farmer’s daughter melon has a pear-like flavor, and the amber delight squash is a hybrid of honeynut and bugle squashes. The award-winning salt and pepper cucumber has black spines and a sweet flavor that Mazourek describes as crisp and refreshing. The unconventional appearance also makes it less attractive to pests like cucumber beetles.

Mazourek’s current projects include purple snap peas and miniaturized vegetables with vivid colors, stripes, and polka dots that he hopes will be more attractive to children and serve as what he calls “well-disguised vitamins.”

“In terms of human health and nutrition, anything we can do to make vegetables more attractive and more appealing, anything we can do to boost the nutrient content of the vegetables and get those vegetables consumed is my goal,” says Mazourek. “Broccoli needs help.”

Developing new varieties of edible plants starts with searching all the material that’s out there, getting to know the plants and the characteristics to work with, and building a collection of traits.

“If you take a deck of cards and you deal out enough hands, you will eventually get every possible combination of the cards,” says Mazourek. “It’s a lot of searching through the combinations. Sometimes there’s a nice, scientifically informed approach, and sometimes we are doing the study about how [a trait] works alongside actually building something.”

There is also a burgeoning market for the new vegetables, he says.

For example, the honeynut squash, which resists powdery mildew, results in a larger crop yield for growers in the Northeast, and for stores as well. Seeds for honeynut squash used to be available through just one organic seed company, but the squash was so successful that a lot of other companies are now selling it.

“So it’s moved from organic to conventional and has become more mainstream,” says Mazourek. “[A new plant] needs the right environment to get its foot in the door and develop a following, and then it can make it big.”