Daily Archives: February 1, 2011

Wine grape vines haven’t been getting busy

The New York Times reported last week that grape vines weren’t having enough sex.  At first glance, this may not seem like a major problem (insert sex joke here).  Alas, it is a big deal.  Look at the mess of a family tree that has been created as a result:

A geneticist from Cornell determined that 75% of wine grape varieties are as closely related as a parent and child or brother and sister.  This is as simple as the NYT could break it down, and I won’t try to compete:

“Thus merlot is intimately related to cabernet franc, which is a parent of cabernet sauvignon, whose other parent is sauvignon blanc, the daughter of traminer, which is also a progenitor of pinot noir, a parent of chardonnay.”

What happened to cause this?  The ease of propagating vines through grafting, phylloxera, wine laws, and our palates.  As a result of so much genetic similarity, the grapes are more susecptible to a wide range of pests, and vineyard managers have resorted to herbicides, fungicides and other nasty chemicals. 

The Times points out three options: add genes for pest resistance, go organic, breed sturdier varieties. 

Big problems with these three options: folks don’t like genetically modified plants, grape vines can have a hard time surviving in an organic environment, and breeding new varieties takes time, money and we’re not guaranteed a tasty result. 

The article went on to discuss a new plant breeding method, called genomic selection or marker-assisted breeding, which would enable scientisits to explore the grape genome.

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