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Scientists are creating grapes of the future with one incredible feature: 'That's a game-changer for [the wine] industry'

"It's our biggest pest for sure."

“It’s our biggest pest for sure.”

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists at the University of Minnesota are breeding a new type of grapes that could help eliminate an issue that wine producers have faced for quite some time.

Grapes grown in humid areas with lower temperatures tend to develop powdery mildew that requires frequent spraying with fungus-fighting pesticides called fungicides. 

As explained in Seven Fifty Daily, a research collaboration that calls itself "VitisGen" is a grape breeding project in its third iteration that is developing a "SuperGrape" that would be resistant to powdery mildew and reduce the need for fungicide use.

"If they could take a Chardonnay plant and breed it so that it's still Chardonnay but has powdery mildew resistance, then that's a game-changer for our industry," said Anji Perry, a viticulturist and vineyard research director at J. Lohr Vineyards & Vines. "They're not there yet, but that would be the hope."

Powdery mildew on grapes comes from a fungus native to North America called Erysiphe necator. Some native grape species in America have developed a resistance, but the common grape vine, known as Vitis vinifera, has not. 

The mildew has impacted some of the world's most popular wines, including Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc. Wine producers like Perry have resorted to increased pesticide spraying to combat the issue.

"In many years, powdery mildew is the only thing we spray for," Perry said. "It's our biggest pest for sure."

The third generation of the project, aka VitisGen3, has used data from previous research to identify the genes that create mildew resistance. Gene-editing technology is then used to extract those genes and insert them into other grapevines to test them against powdery mildew. The data gathered would allow the scientists to isolate favorable characteristics that would potentially lead to the creation of a super-resistant SuperGrape.

"We really want to understand the fundamental biology of how these genes work, because that'll give us better clues of which ones to stack in the future and how to find more of them and understand their function," said Matthew Clark, an associate professor in horticultural science at the University of Minnesota and the project director of VitisGen3.

If successful, the SuperGrape research could be used by breeders to develop a grapevine that's immune not only to powdery mildew but to other diseases as well.

"If there's a common regulator for the way that those genes turn off and on, could you develop a grapevine that was resistant to almost anything?" pondered Donnell Brown, the president of the National Grape Research Alliance.

In a similar bid to protect grape harvests from being lost, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California have used an airborne imaging instrument to detect infection in grapevines up to a year before symptoms could become visible to the human eye.

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