CALS Connection — Summer 2013
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Building Better Peppers
Nicolus Hartley

A University of Florida horticultural sciences professor is teaching undergraduate students how to use conventional genetic breeding techniques to build better peppers.

The project “Building Better Peppers,” originating in the fall 2010 semester, teaches students the intricacies of plant breeding and crop improvement, said horticultural sciences professor and course instructor Bala Rathinasabapathi, Ph.D. He has been able to expand the project’s efforts due to funding from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“This project is interesting to students, and the research helps students to lead up to a new product,” Rathinasabapathi said.

One of the motivations of this project is for students to gain real-life experience in working with plant breeding, he said. After having practiced conducting research and analyzing the results from the pepper plants, students begin creating their own product.

“The BBP project teaches students to develop a product and explore the value of crossing plant genetics, while also expanding research on the pepper plant,” Rathinasabapathi said.

Rathinasabapathi teaches students a research technique he created, which utilizes a scatter plot graph that consists of a visual display of each plant’s uniqueness. This graph allows students the ability to view which plants are different than others, just by looking at the graph.

“The BBP project has its share of complications; I have come across the problem of training students on research techniques,” he said. “It takes time to master research techniques, and this becomes a challenge with students’ small amount of time they have during a semester.”

Attempting to solve this dilemma, Rathinasabapathi created a system allowing teams of undergraduate students to continue working on the project semester after semester. This method enables students to continue enhancing the project while learning and expanding on the work of others, he said.

“The idea is like a relay race,” Rathinasabapathi said. “Every semester students pass on the baton of new knowledge gained from the project, allowing other students to expand on that material.”

During the semester, students will spend time each week growing the plants in the greenhouse and in the field.

Undergraduate student Sean Rider, who is involved in the BBP project, said, “I enjoy having the hands-on experience. I learn things better because I get to put my hands on it.”

Each semester students who are involved in the BBP project are encouraged to utilize their creativity and critical thinking skills, Rathinasabapathi said.

“Students involved in the BBP project are learning the importance of creativity in agriculture,” he said.