Breeder Q&A: All about basil

Departments - Edible Insights

A basil breeder and Ph.D. student at Rutgers University discusses one of controlled environment agriculture’s most crucial crops.

Subscribe
November 22, 2021

Photos courtesy of Lara Brindisi

As popular as basil is with consumers, and given its economic importance to our industry, this culinary herb has yet to benefit from the intensive research treatment enjoyed by crops such as corn, wheat and soy.

It’s also no secret that the pipeline of new degreed or experienced talent simply isn’t flowing as freely as it did in years past. Recruiting new talent who have either the credentials or experience you need for your growing operation is only getting tougher.

So, I decided to hit two birds with one stone in this month’s column and introduce you to my ASHS Mentee, Lara Brindisi, a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University, and share one of our conversations. She is a basil breeder studying how to make basil that can better adapt to climate change, diseases and other abiotic and biotic stresses.

I’ve been working with Brindisi as a mentor to develop her professional goals as she works to finish her Ph.D. I’ve also gotten to learn a bit more about her fascinating basil research along the way.

Leslie Halleck (LH): Before we get into your background and the nitty gritty of your research, what applications from your research do you feel would be useful to growing basil under glass or in controlled environments?

Lara Brindisi (LB): My lab works directly with growers, both outdoor and indoor, to improve basil. New Jersey has a large acreage of outdoor basil production, but also several indoor controlled environment, vertical farming and glasshouse production systems. Personally, my work with the indoor growers in and outside of New Jersey has been on observing the changes in plant chemistry and nutrition and working with the Tepper lab to observe the changes in human sensory perception in response to altering the environment.

LH: Wait, human sensory perception?

LB: It’s very useful to understand how the environment changes aromas, flavors and the underlying chemistry of plants, because then growers can change the lighting or fertilizer regime, for instance, to drive basil to produce a more powerful and/or desirable aroma and increase their market potential.

LH: OK, that’s cool … What new or interesting developments are you seeing emerge from your basil research?

LB: We have made a ton of progress in a relatively short period of time. We recently sequenced a reference genome, for instance, and this will help us and other labs learn so much more about the genetics, which we can apply directly to improving basil varieties. I am also working on CRISPR/Cas9 editing for basil, which is an exciting technique to learn as it has an immense amount of potential for helping crops adapt to climate and disease.

LH: What’s new and exciting on the horizon for food producers/basil growers you want to make sure readers know about?

LB: The Simon lab is working on improving downy mildew resistance in basil without losing key aroma and visual attributes. Keep an eye out for improved DMR (Downey Mildew Resistant) sweet Italian basils and new Thai basil and lemon basil.

LH: Oh, that’s exciting, as downy mildew is such a significant problem for the industry these days. There are already several cultivars that have been released through your program (readers can find those here: bit.ly/BasilRutgers). I know you are also working on chilling tolerance in basil, which could increase its field production range, as well as potentially reduce input costs under glass. I’m a bit of a basil junkie myself. What is your favorite basil to grow and why?

LB: I’m growing at least two varieties at any given time. I grow ‘Rutgers Obsession-DMR’ for Italian- and American-style dishes. It’s my favorite of the Rutgers downy mildew resistant varieties with a floral sweet basil aroma. Sometimes I also grow a traditional Genovese variety for these dishes, but it doesn’t always make it if it gets downy mildew. For Asian-style dishes, I grow Thai basil like ‘Queenette’. We’re currently working on improving Thai basils for downy mildew resistance as well.

LH: Great to hear. So, what got you interested in the research program at Rutgers and what specifically attracted you to the research on basil?

LB: I initially joined the Ph.D. program in Plant Biology at Rutgers University because the Simon lab offered a unique opportunity to intersect all my deeply seeded passions (pun intended) including sustainable agriculture, medicinal chemistry and international development. I spent the first few years of my program working on the chemistry and nutrition of African indigenous vegetables and vertically farmed baby leafy greens. However, in that time, I learned so much more about the field of genetics through my teaching assignment and my courses that I decided to transition my work towards plant breeding and genomics and our basil breeding program offered a much better opportunity to learn those skills. Plus, I can’t deny the Italian heritage that loves sprinkling basil in every meal.

LH: I could talk basil with you all day, but we only have so much space and time to do so. To wrap up, are there any thoughts about your work or the impact you hope to make?

LB: Plant breeding has been a historically male-dominated discipline, but we are seeing a flux of women enter the field (myself included). I’m excited to see how my contemporaries and I transform the space over the next 10, 20, 30 years, especially because our work is becoming more and more important with growing threats to global food production. Most of the food chain is in the hands of women. Empowering women to be in positions to make decisions on how to adapt is crucial to finding solutions to these challenges

Agreed, it’s wonderful to see so many women, such as Brindisi, entering the field. And it’s been educational and inspiring for me to collaborate with her — she’s going to make a meaningful impact wherever she lands, be it industry or academia.

If you want to get a behind-the-scenes peak at Brindisi’s work, follow her on Instagram at @larabrindisi.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com