June 15, 2006

Wine Researchers Using Biotechnology

MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. -- Every season, wine makers fight the same battles to protect their grapevines they have been fighting for thousands of years.

From ancient Mesopotamia to today's vineyards, the eternal enemies include fungus and bugs, extreme heat and unseasonable cold.

Now, Missouri State University researchers hope to apply genetic technology to make cultivated wine grapes as hardy as their wild cousins.

At the newly created Center for Grapevine Biotechnology, researchers are working to identify and transplant individual genes that make native grapes resistant to funguses that plague the European and hybrid vines most wine is made from.

Unlike the 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.

The research is part of a global effort among wine making countries, dubbed the International Grape Genome Program.

It aims 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, said Kovacs, who grew up in a winemaking and farming family in central Hungary.

The center was created 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, Kovacs said.

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.

Researchers are comparing how native and imported grapevines react to fungus attacks. They are trying 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, but the potential benefits to growers and the environment are worth the wait.

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

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

Jon Held, vice president and general manager of Stone Hill Winery, the state's oldest, said consumers are generally wary of genetically modified foods.

The wine business has the added problem of being very bound to tradition and resisting even small changes, like continuing efforts to replace corks with screw caps.

"The big question in all of this is, will it be legal to use?" said.