Team cracks open watermelon genome

UC DAVIS / CORNELL (US) — Scientists have reported the watermelon genome sequence, which could lead to tastier, heartier, more nutritious fruit, as well as a better understanding of the plant vascular system.

The genome of the domesticated watermelon, Citrullus lanatus, contains 23,440 genes, roughly the same number of genes as in humans. The team compared the genomes of 20 different watermelons and developed a first-generation genetic variation map for watermelon.

As reported in Nature Genetics, this information allowed them to identify genomic regions that have been under human selection, including those associated with fruit color, taste, and size.


Professor William Lucas, chair of the department of plant biology and one of the leaders of the genome project, and colleagues at University of California, Davis, are using the previously published cucumber genome and the newly decoded watermelon genome to explore fundamental questions about the plant vascular system, or “information superhighway,” which carries water and nutrients through the plant.

They hope to discover the role played by proteins and RNA species that traffic through the vascular system, many of which are likely to be involved in regulating important agricultural traits.

“Watermelons are a model system for studying the evolution of long-distance signaling processes that occur through the plant vascular system. Knowledge relating to these regulatory mechanisms can be harnessed by breeders to develop watermelons having enhanced properties, including increased water use efficiency, enhanced nutritional value, and engineered resistance to pathogens,” Lucas says.

The researchers also discovered that a large portion of disease resistance genes were lost in the domestication of watermelon. Breeders ultimately may be able to use the genome information to recover some of these natural disease defenses.

‘Cash crop’

“Watermelons are an important cash crop and among the top five most consumed fresh fruits; however, cultivated watermelons have a very narrow genetic base, which presents a major bottleneck to its breeding,” says Zhangjun Fei of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University, and a leader of the project.

“Decoding the complete genome of the watermelon and resequencing watermelons from different subspecies provided a wealth of information and toolkits to facilitate research and breeding.”

Believed to have originated in Africa, watermelons were cultivated by Egyptians more than 4,000 years ago, and the fruit was a source of water in dry, desert conditions. They are now consumed throughout the world, with more than 200 varieties in global commercial production. China leads in global production of the fruit, and the United States ranks fourth with more than 40 states involved in the industry.

Despite being more than 90 percent water, watermelons contain important nutrients like vitamins A and C and lycopene, a compound that gives some fruits and vegetables their red and orange color. The fruit also contains citrulline, a novel amino acid that has been reported to have beneficial effects in terms of maintaining a healthy heart.

Collaborators from UC Davis, Cornell University, and from additional institutions in China, France, Germany, Denmark, and the US contributed to the study, which was funded by grants from the Chinese, US, and French governments.

Sources: UC Davis, Cornell University