Researchers seek genetic answers to old wine problems

Monday, June 19, 2006

Some growers, though, are skeptical whether consumers or regulators will accept wine made from genetically modified vines.

MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. -- Every growing season, wine makers fight the same battles to protect their grapevines that they have faced for thousands of years. From ancient Mesopotamia to today's vineyards, the eternal enemies include fungus and bugs, extreme heat and unseasonable cold.

Now researchers at Missouri State University hope to apply 21st-century genetic technology to make cultivated wine grapes as hardy as their wild cousins, which can shrug off many of those same pests and weather conditions.

Only about five or six research centers in North America are currently working on transplanting genes into cultivated vines to make grapes hardier, mainly to improve resistance to fungi and other diseases, said Dr. Bruce Reisch, professor of grapevine breeding and genetics at Cornell University.

At the newly created Center for Grapevine Biotechnology, a small team of researchers and graduate students is entering that limited field, working to identify and transplant the individual genes that make native grapes resistant to fungi that plague the European and hybrid vines most wine is made from.

'New science for an ancient crop'

Unlike traditional crossbreeding of plants, genetic modification holds the potential for transferring specific traits without changing others, like the distinctive flavor of a pinot noir or chardonnay grape. It would also be much faster than the years it takes to grow hybrids.

"This is a new science for an ancient crop," said Dr. Laszlo Kovacs, co-director of the center.

Some wine growers, though, are skeptical whether consumers or regulators will accept wine made from genetically modified vines.

"The big question in all of this is, will it be legal to use? Parts of Europe have basically said they will not accept transgenic grapevines," said Jon Held, vice president and general manager of Stone Hill Winery, the state's oldest.

Held, part of a government-sponsored viticulture advisory consortium that reviews research for grant funding, said consumers are wary in general of genetically modified foods. The wine business has the added problem of being bound to tradition and resisting even small changes, like continuing efforts to replace corks with screw caps.

A number of transgenic grapevines have been created and planted since the 1990s, but they are still in the experimental phase and not in commercial production, Held said.

Kovacs said he hopes to overcome consumer doubts by using only genes from other grapes, not from different species of plants or even animals as some researchers have done. If people see the process is much like traditional crossbreeding of plants, they may be more accepting, he said.

The southwest Missouri research is part of a global effort among wine making countries, dubbed the International Grape Genome Program. One marker of the Missouri State program's standing is that it hosted the first international grape genomics symposium last July in St. Louis, bringing together about 100 experts from five continents.

Missouri's second largest university created the center in April to house existing research that had been going on for about two years at its satellite campus in Mountain Grove, about 70 miles east of Springfield, home of the school's fruit and plant research.

Most of the center's funding comes from grants, which this year total $332,000 after $290,000 last year, Kovacs said.

Kovacs, who grew up in a winemaking and farming family in central Hungary, says the research is part of a global effort to decipher the roughly 30,000 genes in a grape plant, find which ones account for particular traits such as hardiness or yield, and transfer desirable genes to wine grapes by transplanting just those specific genes.

Within that field, the center's work is focused on a specific problem, fungal diseases.

Funguses attack wine grapes all over the world, but they are worse in the Midwest because the climate is more humid and hotter than in many other wine regions.

"What we are trying to accomplish is to make the plant use its own biology, to make the plant rely more heavily on its own biological defenses," Kovacs said.

To do that, the team of research associates and graduate students is working at several levels. One is to compare how native and imported grapevines react to fungus attacks. Then they try to find which genes may account for the different reactions, giving the native grapes the ability to grow like weeds in an environment that can otherwise kill European varieties.

They are also building gene databases and experimenting with how best to splice individual genes into the cell of a grapevine to produce new, modified plants.

Kovacs said the final result, an improved grape plant that can be released for cultivation, is still a decade or more down the road for his center, which is just starting to develop a process for transplanting specific genes.

But the potential benefits to growers and the environment are worth the wait, he said.

Growers now use repeated doses of fungicides to control mildew and rot. The chemicals are expensive, cutting into a vineyard's profit margin, and a risk to the environment and the health of vineyard workers.

"If we could create a grape that can resist fungal pathogens on its own, we could reduce the number of sprays needed. If you have to spray 12 to 15 times now, maybe you would only have to spray half that many times," Kovacs said.

"This is a huge savings to the environment and to growers' costs," he said.

Missouri's wine industry association sees the center's work as important.

"For Missouri and the Midwest to someday be a leader in the wine industry, and to keep pace, this is very important," said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.

Anderson said more robust varieties of wine grapes could provide the next growth spurt to an industry that has been steadily expanding since the 1960s.

German, French and Italian immigrants made Missouri the nation's second-largest wine producer behind California until Prohibition killed or crippled vineyards nationwide. Missouri now has 56 wineries and as of the last statistics, from 2001, contributed about $35 million to the state's economy in sales and tourism, the wine board said.

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