10:00am Sunday 13th April 2014
By Rory McKeown
FEARS over the freshness of your lettuce could be a thing of the past thanks to a group of Southampton scientists.
Researchers at the University of Southampton have helped to produce salads with a longer shelf life after working with one of the biggest producers of packaged salads.
They worked with Hampshire salad firm Vitacress to work out the genetics of processable salad leaves to pass on to industries involved in salad crop breeding programmes after receiving funding through an Industrial Partnership Award from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Baby salad leaves undergo a rigorous process before reaching supermarkets, which includes harvesting, transportation, washing, sanitisation and packaging.
But many leaves are left suffering from bruises and damage.
Now scientists have initiated a breeding programme in which crop breeders are selectively breeding plants with the genetic material responsible for leaves with a longer shelf life. Researchers also found that using less water when growing salad improves its shelf life.
Lead researcher Prof Gail Taylor, from the University of Southampton, said: “Developing high quality, nutritious, sustainable salad leaves is really important for Vitacress; it’s a key part of their business.
“They need science to achieve that, and the science we’ve done has plugged directly into the business.
“We were able to show that if you reduce water use in intensive salad production by about 20 per cent, you actually develop smaller, tougher leaves with stiff cell walls, which is what we’re interested in, and at the same time the company can reduce their water footprint.
“So we’ve used fundamental biological knowledge and applied it both through the genetic route and through crop production techniques to help the company improve the quality of their product.”
Dr Steve Rothwell, from Vitacress, said: “The results open the door to exciting further studies across a wider range of crops and geographies aimed at driving down the use of water whilst improving crop quality and shelf life.”
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