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Relishing in Cranberry Biology

December 01, 2011

Twenty years ago, the cranberry was considered a luxury crop in contrast to grain, wheat, and corn. While researchers have come to understand that it has some benefit to human health since then, today it is still regarded as a specialty crop. But Nicholi Vorsa believes that the cranberry has an un-harvested potential to improve human health, so he’s developing new varieties to provide a stable supply of cranberries for our consumption.

At the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Vorsa is the director of the Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension Center. To develop new varieties that are resistant to environmental pressures, his team is sequencing and annotating the cranberry genome. For this research, New Jersey is the perfect place.

The annotated cranberry genome will provide a map of the locations of desirable and undesirable genes on the plant’s 24 chromosomes.Source: Wikimedia Commons, Muffet

“From the standpoint of breeding better varieties, it’s the best place because we can select the varieties under the pressures that you’re looking for, such as disease and heat stress,” says Vorsa.

In the end, the annotated cranberry genome will provide a map of the locations of desirable and undesirable genes on the plant’s 24 chromosomes. The major challenge is that often desirable and undesirable genes share the same real estate in the genome, making it difficult to isolate these linked genes.

“We’ll have an understanding how to break those linkages better to keep the qualities that we’re interested in, such as high yield, high color, and high quality,” says Vorsa.

Furthermore, the genome will provide insight into the molecular mechanisms behind its positive effects on human biology. For example, Vorsa and colleagues have recently analyzed the different effects of the cranberry metabolite called flavonoid in normal and obese mice. In a paper published last month in PLoS One, the group reported that obese mice fed a flavonoid-rich diet had not only improved insulin resistance and plasma lipid profiles but also lost internal fat mass (1). In the normal mice, the same diet reduced the plasma atherogenic cholesterol. In conclusion, flavonoid affects different pathways in mice with different metabolic states.

In cancer research, a specific class of these cranberry flavonoids called proanthocyanidins holds a particular promise for future treatments. In a paper published in the International Journal of Oncology, Vorsa and colleagues at Brown University reported that cranberry proanthocyanidins not only make ovarian cancer cells more susceptible to treatment but also deactivate pathways that help these cells avoid apoptosis (2). While researchers have developed drugs that are initially effective against ovarian cancer, the cancer eventually becomes resistant.

“The hope is that we can use a combination therapy with the therapeutic drug along with some how these cranberry proanthocyanidins to thwart the cancer’s ability to resist treatment,” says Vorsa.



Insights into the molecular mechanisms of the anti-atherogenic actions of flavonoids in normal and obese mice. Shabrova EV, Tarnopolsky O, Singh AP, Plutzky J, Vorsa N, Quadro L. PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e24634. Epub 2011 Oct 10.

Int J Oncol. 2012 Jan;40(1):227-35. doi: 10.3892/ijo.2011.1198. Epub 2011 Sep 12. Anti-angiogenic activity of cranberry proanthocyanidins and cytotoxic properties in ovarian cancer cells. Kim KK, Singh AP, Singh RK, Demartino A, Brard L, Vorsa N, Lange TS, Moore RG.


Written by Andrew S. Wiecek for

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