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Genomics sciences guarantee better winemaking

September 18, 2009  By Marg Land

grapes02September 18, 2009
Vancouver, BC – While the art of fine winemaking is a beautiful thing,
winemakers are increasingly turning to the power of science to give them the
tools they need to ensure a high quality pour each and every time.

September 18, 2009
Vancouver, BC – While the art of fine winemaking is a beautiful thing,
winemakers are increasingly turning to the power of science to give them the
tools they need to ensure a high quality pour each and every time.

It’s hoped that new
research funded by Genome Canada and Genome British Columbia will help. 


The research will
harness the power of genomics to unlock fundamental gene functions within
grapevine and yeast cells, ultimately helping growers and winemakers to improve
wine production techniques and enjoy valuable cost savings in an industry that
has seen $4.2 billion in sales in Canada alone.

Dr. Steven Lund of the University of British Columbia
is one of the lead investigators on the $3.4 million project, entitled Grape
and Wine Genomics
. His work will focus on using genomics to identify protein
biomarkers that will assist viticulturists to monitor how the vine and berries
respond to natural and human-made environmental changes.

“Essentially, we are
trying to put more advanced tools into the hands of producers,” says Lund, who
equates current knowledge of the berry to a bit of a black box. 

Currently, growers
monitor what is happening in the berry like measuring pH and sugar levels to
estimate harvest date, but not until late in the growth process. But there
are currently no means to monitor the impact that management techniques such as
fertilization, irrigation, and leaf thinning have on berry ripening and flavour
development earlier in each season.

“All of these techniques
affect flavour and amino acid composition, but growers have no idea how or
why,” says Lund. “That’s where genomics comes in.”

The ultimate goal of the
research? “A practical application – a handheld device that will help growers
monitor proteins in the vine or berry at any time during any given season to
determine when specific management practices should be applied and, perhaps
most importantly, to what degree,” says Lund.

Lund is collaborating
with Dr. Paul Yager, a professor of bioengineering at the University of
, whose team has created a portable device for detecting blood-borne
pathogens. Dr. Yager will work with Lund to adapt his technology for use
in the vineyard, directly on the vines.

But while high quality
grapes are essential for a good glass, they are but one piece of the
puzzle. The rest of the magic occurs during the winemaking process itself.

Dr. Hennie van Vuuren,
the project’s other lead investigator, is the director of the University of
British Columbia’s
Wine Research Centre. His team, which includes
scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Harvard University in
the U.S., is studying the function of the Fermentation Stress Response genes in
wine yeasts, which are added to the grape juice during the winemaking process
and are essential for converting sugars into alcohol and flavour compounds.

Dr. van Vuuren and his
team are using advanced technologies to see how yeast cells adapt to the many
stress conditions they encounter, such as osmotic pressure, nutrient
limitation, and increasing ethanol.

“We have recently
discovered that yeast cells adapt to wine making stress conditions by switching
on 62 genes of unknown function,” says Dr. van Vuuren. “Our objective is to
discover function for each of these 62 genes, and in so doing, help winemakers
to control their outcomes a little better.”

Cost savings is another
important issue. Winemakers waste a lot of money due to spoilage caused by
yeasts that are essentially faulty and don’t allow them to achieve a fully dry

“Residual sugars are
acceptable in varieties such as Riesling, but in a Cabernet Sauvignon for
example, they will ruin the batch,” says Dr. van Vuuren, who also notes that
the residual sugars can leave the wine susceptible to microbial spoilage.

The Grape and Wine
project will also probe social science questions raised by the
research. Dr. David Laycock is part of a team of five political
scientists from Simon Fraser University, who are studying the social, political
and regulatory contexts for scientific innovation as they relate to the wine

Their work will help the
Canadian industry and regulatory bodies better understand public concerns
regarding the use of genomics technologies in the production of wine and the
general food industry, and will help guide the responsible introduction of
genomic technologies over the long term.

“Canadian industry can
learn lessons from other wine producing countries and their attitudes towards
scientific innovation,” says Dr. Laycock. “The best science and government
funding in the world can still run up against a brick wall if there isn’t a
receptive public environment and an intelligent regulatory framework.”

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