In his words, Sean Myles is “super-passionate about food.”
It’s a passion he has turned into a research mission. Under the banner of his Cultivating Diversity project, Dr. Myles studies the many different traits of apples that we enjoy with the goal of finding out ways to breed new apple varieties and help sustain our future food supply. In his mind, there's no better time to create a collection of as many different kinds of apples as possible with the goal of breeding new varieties that require less chemicals to grow, taste great and will sell out in grocery stores.
The work of his eight-person lab is far from genetic engineering and Dr. Myles is quick to make the distinction.
"We're not in the business of creating GMOs," he says. "We're figuring out how to combine the desirable traits from the thousand-plus apple varieties we currently have into new varieties and, in the end, preserve this precious biodiversity."
Dr. Myles, currently the Canada Research Chair in Agricultural Genetic Diversity and also an assistant professor in the Faculty of Agriculture, works out of the Apple Biodiversity Collection at the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, N.S., A few years ago, he and a few other researchers planted an orchard that he describes as the “United Nations of apples.” Today, it's home to more than 1,000 apple varieties. Some of these apples we know as Macintosh and Honey Crisp, while others are wild varieties coming from places like Kazakhstan, and may have traits that could be used to make a new hit apple.
The majority of the team's work happens down the road from the orchard on computers, where they evaluate these traits, sequence the genomes and analyze the millions upon millions of letters making up the DNA of these apples. From there, they'll spend the next few years attempting to determine which two apples can be bred together to create a new hit variety.
Eventually, their research will be passed on to Canada's apple breeders, who will be the ones to plant the seeds, evaluate the tree's fruit and decide if they're worthy of being sold in grocery stores. It's a process that can take decades for breeders, but Dr. Myles is hoping that the team's research will shorten the process and that, soon enough, we'll have new apple varieties to enjoy.
When the time comes to test the most important trait — taste — Dr. Myles will have to call on other people to do it: although he’s got a passion for food, he's allergic to apples.