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Saving Your Salad: Cornell Plant Breeder Develops Better Cucumbers

Lauren Brzozowski inspects cucumber plants in the Guterman Greenhouse Complex. Photo by Matt Hayes/College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Greenhouse fans hum overhead as graduate student Lauren Brzozowski steps from pot to pot, prepping towering cucumber plants for pollination.

The pollen from male flowers is being capped around female flowers as the plant breeding graduate student makes fresh crosses inside the Guterman greenhouse complex. Her goal: helping cucumber growers across the eastern U.S. save their fields from pests and disease.

Getting crisp, flavorful cucumbers to market can be a challenge for organic growers, she said. The striped cucumber beetle and downy mildew, a disease that causes lesions on plant leaves, pose grave risks for a crop that can’t be controlled with the pesticides and fungicides favored by conventional growers.

As the summer unfolds, downy mildew spores will ride wind currents sweeping from Florida to New York. Within weeks, infected leaves turn a blotchy pale green, then yellow, before the leaf tissue withers and dies.   

Plagues of insects also lurk. In mid-June, as cucumber plants emerge across New York, the striped cucumber beetle feeds on leaves, stems and blossoms. The voracious pest causes reduced yield and unmarketable fruit.

“Organic growers experience devastating yield losses from the beetle and disease,” Brzozowski said. “Alone or together, they can wipe out entire fields and negatively impact what local or regionally grown foods we have available to us.”

Brzozowski’s research is giving farmers access to more resilient breeding lines as she ultimately works to develop new cucumber and squash varieties that can be cultivated without pesticides. Her work with organic breeding systems earned her a fellowship from the Seed Matters Initiative of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which funds graduate students working for organic systems by breeding better varieties of plants. Seed Matters works toward crop diversity as well as improving education and research in the agricultural sector.

Cucumber pollination
Pollen is capped around female flowers. Photo by Matt Hayes/CALS

Brzozowski is working with Michael Mazourek, assistant professor of plant breeding in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to develop more resilient cucumbers and other vegetables, such as variegated snacking peppers and summer squash. The striped cucumber beetle is similarly destructive in summer squash, not only defoliating the plants, but transmitting diseases as well.

“Lauren’s work highlights the importance of innovation in organic agriculture for all agricultural systems,” Mazourek said. “By working on alternatives to chemical disease and insect control, we can have solutions now for organic growers that are adopted by conventional growers as well when their use of pesticides becomes restricted or loses effectiveness.”

“Organic growers don’t have a lot of the same tools as conventional growers for addressing many of the problems they face on the farm,” Brzozowski said. “We really need resistant varieties to help all farmers succeed.”

Brzozowski became hooked on plant breeding as a way to increase the sustainability of agricultural systems. She uses her background in engineering and horticulture to develop crops that benefit farmers: “You get to use science and math to bring together basic research into something that can be applied and tangible for growers. It’s thrilling.”

Thao Pham, executive director of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, praised Brzozowski for giving organic cucumber growers the tools to avoid plant disease without requiring chemical fungicides.

“Clif Bar Family Foundation is excited to provide funding for a four-year graduate student fellowship in organic crop breeding for Lauren Brzozowski at Cornell University,” she said.

To date, Seed Matters has provided funding through their fellowship program to seven universities and fourteen fellows, providing more than $1.5 million in funding to land-grant universities between 2013 and 2016.

Melanie Greaver Cordova is communications coordinator for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.