When Thomas Jefferson planted European grapevines in Virginia more than 200 years ago, they quickly succumbed to pests and diseases. Grape varieties that were native to the area like muscadines and those related to Vitis labrusca could survive in this environment, but for the Vitis vinifera varieties that made the wines that he loved to drink, the environment presented challenges that they had no defense against.
Today, most North American vineyards, and particularly those in the East, face many of the same challenges as those planted by Jefferson. Fortunately, we understand much more about managing pests like phylloxera, and diseases like black rot and anthracnose, and have tools available to keep them in check. But the basic fact still remains — we’re trying to grow many grape varieties in conditions that are different from those where they evolved and are genetically adapted to.
For more than 100 years, grape breeders have worked to develop new varieties that include desirable traits like resistance to mildew infections or being better able to tolerate cold temperatures in the winter. The problem is that the species with traits that we want also have characteristics that we don’t want, like undesirable aromas, flavors, or color compounds. It can take decades to develop a new variety that has the desired characteristics and also minimizes the undesirable ones (the second challenge is to get consumers to recognize and accept a new variety, but that’s a whole other story). It would be great to give breeders the tools to quickly and accurately identify seedlings that have the traits that they want, and discard those that don’t.
Launched in 2011, thanks to a grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative (NIFA-SCRI), VitisGen brings together scientists from 11 different research institutions across the U.S., and is supported by private industry. Their shared goal is to accelerate the development of the next generation of grapes.
VitisGen marks an important advance in traditional breeding programs. The techniques and technology being used as part of VitisGen will speed up the development of new grape varieties with advantageous qualities for both producers and consumers. In consultation with public agencies and private industry, VitisGen identified three priority traits to focus its initial efforts on: resistance to powdery mildew, improved low temperature tolerance, and fruit quality. VitisGen will identify molecular markers — pieces of DNA that are part of, or located very close to, the actual genes of interest — that will help grape breeders to select grapevines favoring the priority traits to use in new crosses. Project scientists are using new technology that will decrease the time, effort, cost, and space necessary for developing these new markers, and thus new varieties. For example, VitisGen could lead to a new grape variety that tastes a lot like Cabernet Sauvignon or Riesling, but is highly resistant to powdery mildew, the most important (and expensive) fungal pest of grapes.
It is important to note that VitisGen is focused on improving the tools and the processes used in traditional breeding programs, and not on developing transgenic, or “GMO,” grapes. Using a wide range of grape varieties and species, the breeders, geneticists, pathologists, food chemists, and others involved in the project are trying to identify the genes that influence disease resistance, cold tolerance, and aromas and flavors that are already found in other grapes (as opposed to those from fish or peanuts or other organisms). Once those genes are identified in young seedlings, breeders can make better and faster decisions about which seedlings to keep and use in new crosses, utilizing traditional breeding techniques used by professional scientists and hobbyists with flowers, tomatoes, apples, and most other agricultural crops. The result will be new grape varieties that are better adapted to withstand a range of environmental and biological pressures while producing high-quality fruit, which benefits farmers, consumers, and the environment.
For more information about VitisGen, visit the project’s website at www.vitisgen.org.
Scientists from the following institutions are part of VitisGen:
• Cornell University
• Dalhousie University
• Florida A&M University
• Mississippi State University
• Missouri State University
• Oklahoma City University
• Oklahoma State University
• South Dakota State University
• University of California–Davis
• University of Minnesota
• USDA–Agricultural Research Service
Private support for VitisGen is being provided by:
• E&J Gallo Winery
• National Grape & Wine Initiative
• J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines
• California Table Grape Commission