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Sun World debuts high-tech innovation center in Wasco

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In this file photo from December 2020, research scientist Esther Niu works to extract DNA in Sun World's new innovations facility in Wasco. The specialty-fruit breeding company breeds plants to produce the tastiest, best-looking grapes and stone fruit with the longest-possible shelf life.

Local specialty crop breeder Sun World International LLC threw open the doors Friday of a new, state-of-the art research and development center in Wasco focused on fulfilling consumer and grower expectations while also coming up with new varieties more tolerant of drought and extreme heat.

The Palm Desert-based company with more than 2,000 customers in 15 countries hosted tours of its 140-acre campus outfitted with advanced scientific laboratories and surrounded by commercial orchards, vineyards and homes. The facility began operations in December 2020 but hadn't been open to visitors until this week because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday's unveiling of the 17,000-square-foot Sun World International Center for Innovation attracted government officials, including the head of California's Department of Food and Agriculture, Karen Ross, who told the event's audience that innovation by companies like Sun World "is what makes California so successful."

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman also spoke to the group of farmers and news media representatives, saying the facility has the potential to help tackle challenges to the world's food supply with nutritious foods able to withstand disease and pests in ways that also protect soil health and the environment.

Sun World does not use genetic modification to improve crops but employs traditional means of selection enhanced by molecular analysis and precise processes for making decisions about which varieties to cultivate and which to cull.

Employees led visitors past cubicles and offices to see how the company produces new breeds of table grapes, stone fruit and, most recently, citrus.

Scientists at the facility's molecular lab explained how genetic information is used to pick varieties with desirable traits like mildew resistance and drought tolerance. Among other work taking place there is an effort to sequence the more than 14,000 genes that make up a table grape.

Inside Sun World's sterile "culture room," plant embryos are grown in test tubes before being exposed to light as a way of determining whether they are hearty enough to be transplanted to the center's greenhouses.

Ag fields behind the facility are where the plants' viability is put to the test. There grows a constantly changing roster of 100 table grape varieties. A third of them fail; those that make the cut are placed in storage to see how well they survive simulated shipping conditions. The best of them are sent to different countries to help determine how well they do in localized conditions.

The company's post-harvest lab evaluates crops according to priorities ranging from flavor and tartness to appearance and firmness. Crops brought there are blind-tested and compared with samples from competitors' varieties.

Notably, Sun World has not grown its own fruit since 2019. With more than 300 registered trademarks, it licenses its fruit to growers on five continents.

Sun World was bought by Los Angeles investment firm Renewable Resources Group in 2013. Last year, a London-based private equity group called Bridgepoint Advisers Limited bought a controlling interest in Sun World, which was founded in the mid-1970s in Bakersfield as a packer and marketer of fresh produce.

President and CEO David Marguleas on Friday declared the new facility "a triumph of hope," that will allow the company to do groundbreaking work that will be "transformative in all the ways that matter."

Speaking later in an interview, Marguleas said the center was built because its previous R&D facility, located a few miles from the new one, offered limited space for working on new crops he said Sun World's customers have been asking for, as well as improvement of crops the company already works with.