This Researcher’s Mission Is To Help Farmers Find A Hardier Apple

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Agricultural researcher Awais Khan is now heading efforts to find new ways to breed apples that are resistant to disease, having grown up in a small town and worked on six crops across five continents.

Khan, currently an associate professor at the School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University, says that in his research group, they characterize the genetics of disease resistance in apples, as a way to develop varieties with improved resistance and methods to sustainably manage diseases in apple orchards.

“We are developing novel methods including rapid cycle breeding, genome-editing, and marker-assisted selection to overcome some of these obstacles and speed-up targeted breeding of high-quality disease resistant cultivars,” he says, adding that even today, breeding disease resistant and good fruit quality cultivars of woody perennial crops, such as apple, is particularly time-consuming, laborious, and expensive.

“We characterize mechanisms of disease resistance using quantitative genetics, genomics, transcriptomics and bioinformatics; develop high-throughput methods for plant resistance phenotyping; develop DNA markers for marker-assisted breeding and develop disease resistant pre-breeding lines,” Khan says, adding that he’s always been interested in how scientific research translates to real world situations in the field.

“It has always been my goal to bring the knowledge gained at these leading institutions to poverty alleviation and sustainable agriculture,” he says.

From Jute Mats to Genetic Maps

Khan says that he was born in a small village called Tahlian in Pallandri, Azad Kashmir (the Pakistani-administered part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region) and was from a humble financial background.

“I feel that my personal background gives me a unique perspective on being from Global South and contributing to international agriculture,” Khan says, adding that his primary-level education was at a”taat school,” where the students sat on a jute mat (taat) on the ground and he also helped his parents raise crops and livestock.

He was able to enter an agricultural university at the suggestion of a friend and completed his undergraduate degree in science in Azad Kashmir and got admission in the University of Gottingen, Germany for MSc in International Agriculture.

Since then, Khan’s research career has taken him through some of the leading research institutions in the world, including ETH-Zurich, Switzerland, University of York in the UK, the University of Illinois in the US and the International Potato Center (CIP).

Khan says that challenges for food and nutritional security and sustainable agriculture have very serious impact and are complex to deal with particularly in Global South due to large populations, chronic hidden hunger, limited availability of agricultural land, and climate change.

“It will be impossible to achieve UN’s SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) particularly SDG 2 (Zero hunger), 1 (No poverty), and 10 (Reduced inequalities), unless scientists from global south actively develop sustainable solutions for their local food security issues,” he says.

Another scientist in the Global South working on protecting a popular fruit is Catalina Salgado-Salazar.

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