The Chronicle Herald: Data seeds apple research

On paper, Vinetha Jagadeesan and Dalhousie University professor Sean Myles are unlikely collaborators on a project to develop new varieties of apples.

Jagadeesan, 20, is a computer science undergraduate student from southern India who is spending 12 weeks this summer as an intern at a high-tech apple orchard in Kentville.

Before setting foot in Canada for the first time six weeks ago, she had never laid eyes on an apple tree.

“I had never seen an apple tree before because in my part of the country it’s pretty warm and we don’t have apple trees,” Jagadeesan said.

And Myles, an assistant professor in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie is, ironically, allergic to apples.

“I find I actually have an advantage,” he said with a laugh. “To me, when I look at the orchard of 1,000 varieties, I don’t see all these fascinating flavours and this kind of stuff, I see combinations of genetic material that need to be shuffled together in specific combination to generate something that is desirable according to what we can measure.”

The 1,000 varieties of apples at the orchard, a collaboration with Agriculture Canada, are all planted in duplicate, with more than 2,400 trees in the collection.

The fruit is harvested and data is collected measuring its sweetness, firmness, acidity, juiciness and weight.

Jagadeesan spends some time in the orchard, but the majority of her energy is expended in the lab developing software to improve the lab’s data analysis capabilities by incorporating unique bar codes, with all that information digitized and stored.

“If we collect 10 pieces of fruit from every tree, that’s 25,000-plus pieces of fruit every year that we need to harvest and measure,” Myles said.

“That makes a lot of data, and pairing it with our DNA sequence database, which contains billions of data points, we really want to make that … as efficient as possible.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to develop tools for breeders that will make breeding improved varieties more efficient, Myles said.

“It will allow them to select the offspring that they’re generating from when they make crosses, be able to select those offspring that are the most promising, the winners that are likely to be successful like honeycrisp,” he said. “We want to enable the breeders to find those more easily.”

For Jagadeesan, who’s halfway through her internship, the experience has been an eye-opener.

“I’ve learnt a lot about research and data analysis and how the data is managed, how the data works,” she said. “And other than the work, I’ve never lived independently before, so I just learnt how to cook … everything is totally new for me. So I’ve learnt a lot here.”

She is one of 22 international undergraduate students, from countries like Saudi Arabia, France, Turkey and Mexico, who will work at Dalhousie this summer under the Mitacs Globalink internship program.

Since 2009, the program has matched nearly 2,000 undergraduate students with Canadian universities.

There are 750 international students conducting research at 45 Canadian universities this summer, a 58 per cent increase from last year.

“The idea is to connect students to universities and professors through particular research projects,” Alejandro Adem, Mitacs CEO and scientific director, said in an interview from Vancouver.

“Canadian universities are well equipped to handle great students, they have great professors. However, competing internationally to attract the best students is always a challenge because globally there’s competition from all the major countries who are trying to recruit graduate students.”

Jagadeesan said she will go back to India with a positive impression of Nova Scotia and will return to pursue her graduate studies.

“It’s given me a really good global exposure. I get to witness first-hand how research is carried out here.”

By: Remo Zaccagna