UCF Students Reap Benefits of Plant Breeding Initiative

It’s hot in UCF hoops as students grow peppers for the Biology Department’s Plant Breeding Initiative (PBI). Hoop houses are tunnel-shaped solar greenhouses that are constructed from steel frames and plastic cladding.

Launched in the fall of 2019 with a vision to create a living classroom built around growing plants, PBI offers more than. tasty pepper. It provides a low-risk, entry-level introduction to experimental science and teaches students the fundamentals of applied plant science. Founding member of PBI and doctorate in biology student Hannah Stanford 2020 describes the research project as an opportunity for undergraduate students to explore an interest in plants.

“It’s amazing to see the fruits of our labor, literally and figuratively,” Stanford says. “It takes dedication, but it’s definitely worth it.”

When the PBI was launched, several options were offered based on characteristics including their ability to grow in Florida, as well as their nutritional value and cultural and historical significance. Peppers were chosen because they exhibit a wide range of colors, shapes and textures and are easy to grow and reproduce.

Alina Makarenko, a second-year biology student, joined PBI to gain more hands-on experience and research skills.

“Doing the genotypes, phenotypes, and tending to the peppers connected me to current and past classes,” says Makarenko. “I found myself more immersed in what I learn in class because I was able to apply it later in the field.”

PBI received two student research grants from the Office of Undergraduate Research to help the project grow. This is a collaboration between the UCF Chapter of the Botanical Society of America and the mason lab led by Assistant Professor of Biology Chase Mason.

There are over 90 different varieties of peppers in hoops, ranging from Chile to India, each with a different size, color and heat variation. Members cultivated 92 pepper accessions to seedling stage and sampled tissues for genotyping.

The students analyzed trait-related genetic markers to identify the presence of specific traits that are difficult to assess such as pest and disease resistance. From there, members start crossing select peppers. This involves choosing two plants – ideally within the same species – with one ‘male parent’ serving as the pollen donor and the other a ‘female parent’ which is an unopened flower. The undeveloped male parts of the female flower are then carefully removed to avoid damaging the plant’s ovaries. From there, the pollen is sprinkled from the male parent onto the female parent.

Biology junior Anisa Khalid compares her work at PBI to exposure therapy.

“We’re exposed to all of these biological terms, and you’re completely immersed in the plant breeding process,” she says. “I find it much easier to read an article about raising peppers now that I have hands-on experience with the actual process.”

PBI also intends to work with a professional plant breeder to introduce disease resistance into Dátil pepper, a culturally significant pepper in the community of St. Augustine, Florida.

Biology Senior Kevin Pucci says in some ways he’d rather finish a project at Hoop House than get a good test mark.

“That’s not to say I wouldn’t be happy with a good test score, but I prefer a more hands-on approach. And I’ve never really had the chance until now,” Pucci says.

Students from all majors and fields are encouraged to join the Plant Breeding Initiative with no experience necessary. While the focus is on teaching the fundamentals of biology like phenotyping and genotyping, Stanford emphasizes that students also develop skills like problem solving that cross disciplines.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for undergraduates to learn these skills now so they’re ready for the future,” Stanford says.