Sweeter, juicier watermelons possible after genome decoded

An international team of scientists has reported success in sequencing the genome of the watermelon, which — in addition to making them more disease resistant — may soon mean sweeter, juicier, and more nutritious varieties in our supermarkets.

"Watermelons are an important cash crop and among the top five most consumed fresh fruits; however, cultivated watermelons have a very narrow genetic base, which presents a major bottleneck to its breeding. Decoding the complete genome of the watermelon and resequencing watermelons from different subspecies provided a wealth of information and toolkits to facilitate research and breeding," said Zhangjun Fei, project leader of the Fei Bioinformatics Lab at Cornell University, who is one of the leaders of the sequencing project.

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According to the researchers, domestication of the watermelon caused many of the genes that control disease resistance to be lost. With this new information available to researchers and breeders, the hope is that plant breeding programs can have a more targeted view on which varieties of the fruit to select to produce more disease resistant varieties. Also, since they were able to identify 'genomic regions' that humans have already been selecting for — size, taste, colour — this will also have the side effect of being able to breed for fruit that has more water content, tastes and looks better, and even that is more nutritious.

Likely originating from southern Africa, and first cultivated by the Egyptians as a convenient water source, watermelon is a good source of potassium and a very good source of vitamins A and C. Also, the red colour of its flesh comes from lycopene, which some studies have shown could reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.