Sep 272007
As will be reported in this week’s Nature, French and Italian scientists have completely sequenced the genome of the common pinot noir wine grape (subscription required). As most wine connoisseurs would expect, the vitis vinifera genome is fairly complex, containing about 30,000 genes. While this is several thousand more than human beings, it is significantly lower than the number of genes noted in some earlier plant genomes, such as the poplar or rice. The most relevant comparisons cannot yet be made because the grape is the first fruit plant to be sequenced. However, some aspects of the annotations that can be made stand out noticeably. Relative to known genomes, the grape has a large number of stilbene synthases (responsible for the synthesis of resveratol) and terpene synthases (which produce compounds that give rise to wine’s complex flavors).

For the present, this sequencing effort is unlikely to produce any great revolutions in the wine industry—a significant body of work is required to relate flavor profiles to genetics, especially so considering the influence that soil chemistry, water abundance, and climate have on grapes and the resulting wines. As this research develops, however, it may prove possible by transplanting cassettes of synthetic genes from one grape to another, to introduce flavors currently unique to poorly-dispersed or finicky strains into hardier grapes that can be grown anywhere. Moreover, this research may provide a means to protect grape monocultures from diseases or climate change by identifying (and possibly correcting) genetic weaknesses.

The thing that strikes me is how overdue this kind of research is. I’ve already written in this space on the importance of agricultural research in the context of climate change; this is particularly true with regards to fruits. Most grains are grasses, and while this does not mean they are invincible, it does mean they’re likely to be relatively hardy—this is part of why they became so widely cultivated in the first place. By contrast, fruits and vegetables can be difficult to cultivate even in relatively good conditions. While grains are sufficient to sustain life, to ensure proper nutrition it will be important to make fruits and vegetables available. Understanding the genetics of these organisms is essential to that task.

It’s important to emphasize that sequencing a genome is only the beginning of understanding an organism’s genetics. Knowing what the genes you’ve sequenced produce, what stimuli control their expression, and what can be safely done to manipulate those stimuli or genes is the true aim of a genetic study. In this regard, plant studies lag significantly behind those in animals—the fact that many animals are significant models for human illness is a major reason for this. However, plants are the basis of our entire food supply, and therefore understanding their biochemistry may be of much greater importance in the near future. Research funding bodies, especially at the government level where the results will not be proprietary, should begin putting a greater emphasis on crop plant research in order to ensure the integrity of the food supply in light of climate change, declining diversity, and other challenges.

 Posted by at 6:46 PM

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