Graduate Student, School of Forestry and Wood Products, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan
"Preserving the Genetic Diversity of the Bolivian Cherimoya Fruit"
Modern agriculture has narrowed the genetic base of many crops while preying on, and in some cases, destroying the traditional genetic base of crops, including one of the lost crops of the Incas, the Cherimoya. While the Cherimoya fruit and related species are somewhat integrated into market systems, it is largely unused as a cash crop in the rural Andean communities where the plant originated and the genetic base remains intact. Ms. Owens plans to use statistical analysis of its genetic diversity to characterize the differences and identify pest-resistant characteristics of the plants in the hope that this study will allow breeding of the trees that maintain the traditional genetic base, improving cash crop opportunities and reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides. By integrating tree crops such as Cherimoya to small landholders, diversity of the species will increase, population and agricultural pressure on the landscape may be reduced, and rural income improves.
The Lindbergh Grant provided an opportunity to begin gathering essential genetic information about the Cherimoya tree, which is an important tree, both economically and environmentally, to Bolivian farmers.
Economically the cherimoya has the potential to provide additional income to the farmers, which can make a difference between being in debt and maintaining a comfortable living. The additional income for the farmers can also make a difference in whether their children can go on to college or must leave school and go to work.
Environmentally, the cherimoya tree benefits the farm system. Planted along the edge of farmland, it makes a natural border and is also useful in controlling erosion along stream banks.
Genetically, the tree is susceptible to selection by farmers, which can lead to degraded genetic diversity. Ms. Owens’s research determined that there is good genetic diversity, however, all farmers interviewed in the study had problems with their trees. Further genetic research could address issues such as cold tolerance and fungal disease. Other problems can be resolved through education and extension work.
During her study, Ms. Owens determined that the cherimoya tree seedlings had a good germination rate, based on the health of the tree. Seedlings were resistant to common greenhouse pests, except mites, and the seeds germinated easily. Since then, Ms. Owens created a slide show in cooperation with the Peace Corps based on her work.
She presented summaries of her work at two conferences:
- Global Education Institute at Primary Source, Boston, MA, July 2008,
- Early Career Education Fellow at the American Phytopthological Society in Washington DC, March 2009, entitled, “Peace Corps and Plant Pathology: Pathways to Success”
Currently, Ms Owens works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Animal Plant Health Inspection Service; Plant Protection and Quarantine; Center for Plant Health Science and Technology at the National Plant Germplasm and Biotechnology Laboratory as a Plant Biologist. She is currently working on developing new molecular methods and tools for the detection of plant pathogens found in foreign plan germplasm. Using PCR, as she did with the cherimoya project, she is able to develop faster and improved methods to indentify if sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, sugarcane, plums, peaches, and black currants are free of virus diseases, which can impact U.S. Agriculture.
Since February 2009, Ms. Owens has developed a website for Peruvian Project, Inc., a small NGO formed by her father, which helps poor Peruvian children finish their education. She has advised on other small projects, such as organic gardening and demonstrating how the people can have their own garden to take charge of their own nutrition and well-being.