Genomics uncorks climate-tolerant wine grape varieties

Grapes on the VineJust in time for wine Wednesday, scientists have discovered a new sequencing process that will help breed grapes that can tolerate climate change.

Using this sequencing process, along with a new computer algorithm that can yield detailed information about complex genomes of various organisms, scientists were able to assemble the genome of the cabernet sauvignon grape variety, which may help solve mysteries of its ancestry, and best of all, lead to better tasting and more affordable wine.

According to research from the University of California-Davis, warmer temperatures attributed to climate change are already being recorded in many prime grape-growing regions of the world. And in California, where the value of grape crops varies widely and is heavily influenced by local climate, it is especially important that new varieties be able thrive despite warming temperatures.

“In a worsening climate, drought and heat stress will be particularly relevant for high-quality viticultural areas such as Napa and Sonoma,” said Dario Cantu, a plant geneticist specializing in plant and microbial genomics at UC Davis. “For grapevine genomics, this new technology solves a problem that has limited the development of genomic resources for wine grape varieties,” he added. “It’s like finally being able to uncork a wine bottle that we have wanted to drink for a long time.”

Cabernet sauvignon is the world’s most popular red wine grape variety, and according to the researchers, the new process provides rapid access to genetic information that cabernet sauvignon has inherited from both its parents, enabling scientists to identify genetic markers to use in breeding new vines with improved traits.

The first genome sequence for the common grapevine, Vitis vinifera, was completed in 2007. However, because it was based on a grapevine variety that was generated to simplify the genome assembly procedure, rather than a cultivated variety, that sequence lacks many of the genomic details that economically important wine grape varieties possess, Cantu explained in the article.

He also noted that the new sequencing technology will enable his research group to conduct comparative studies between cabernet sauvignon and other historically and economically important wine grape varieties.

“This will help us understand what makes cabernet sauvignon cabernet sauvignon,” he said.

The new sequencing effort also may answer some of the questions that have surrounded the ancestry of cabernet sauvignon for centuries.

“Having access to this genomic information is historically fascinating,” Cantu said, noting that the cabernet sauvignon grape variety is thought to date no later than the 17th century. He also explained that in 1997 geneticist Carole Meredith used DNA fingerprinting techniques to identify cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc as the two varieties that had crossed to produce cabernet sauvignon.

“Today, you can find cabernet sauvignon growing on every continent except Antarctica,” Cantu said in the article. “And because grape vines have been propagated by plant cuttings rather than grown from seed, all of the cabernet sauvignon vines are genetically identical, with the exception of some spontaneous, clonal mutations. Using this new genome sequencing process, we can now develop the genetic markers necessary to combine important traits into new varieties,” Cantu continued.

“It’s been 400 years since that was last done for cabernet sauvignon; we can do better than that.”

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