Kiwi scientists are set to combine blueberries with the goodness of their colourful cousins, bilberries, to create a healthy new brand of superfruit.
The $5 million, five-year, Plant and Food Research-led programme will investigate the potential for a new commercial crop that combines the taste and growing characteristics of blueberries with the colourful flesh of bilberries.
Bilberries are a small berry found in Northern Europe that have dark blue-red flesh high in anthocyanins, the compounds that give blueberries their distinctive blue skin and that have been found to be beneficial to human health.
While the skin makes up less than 10 per cent of a fruit, it contains nearly all the compounds that provide a nutritional benefit.
These benefits are largely derived from biologically active secondary metabolites.
However, bilberries are not viable as a commercial crop as they are difficult to cultivate and the berries are highly susceptible to damage when harvested or transported.
The new research programme, supported through the Government's Endeavour Fund, will breed novel blueberry-bilberry hybrids suited to New Zealand conditions.
It is expected that these will be grown and managed in a similar way to traditional blueberries but produce fruit with a sweet, juicy blueberry taste and with the flesh colour, and therefore high anthocyanin concentration, of bilberries.
"Research suggests consumers want fruits with novel characteristics, such as colour, and with added health benefits," programme leader Dr Richard Espley said.
"Blueberries have high concentrations of anthocyanins in their skin which gives them their dark blue appearance."
As a test case, Espley and his team will direct production of the phytochemical anthocyanin, with an aim to discover how to increase phytochemical production in fruit flesh.
The "superfood" status of blueberry belies the fact that the white flesh of the fruit is largely devoid of the beneficial phytochemicals.
Breeding a hybrid with bilberries, a cousin to blueberries with a natural red-blue flesh, should allow the researchers to develop a new crop that is coloured throughout the fruit.
"A new type of tasty, full-colour berry would provide New Zealand with a unique product in the marketplace."
As part of the research project, scientists will also investigate the genetic pathways that control flesh colour in fruits.
This will allow breeders to develop better cultivars faster by screening seedlings in the hybrid breeding programme at an early stage to select those plants that will produce fruit with coloured flesh to evaluate further.
It was anticipated the new insights could also be used to inform breeding programmes of other fruits with high flesh colour.
New Zealand produces close to 4000 tonnes of blueberries each year with a value of $55 million, including $37 million worth of exports, primarily to Australia.
The new research might also be used to improve other New Zealand fruit crops, such as apple, pear and kiwifruit.