Grape Scott! Mizzou Scientists Engineering Fungus-Free Wine Grapes

Dec 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm
Missouri has long been one of the world's leading exporters of beer. But now, researchers at the University of Missouri say that vino could be the state's next big alcoholic gift to mankind.

The state grape of Missouri -- the Norton variety -- is known for its resistance to powdery mildew, a fungal pathogen that affects wine grapes around the world. Suddenly, scientists here are realizing that the individual genes of Norton grapes might one day transfer into other, mildew-prone grapes, making them less susceptible to fungal invasion.

Yep, we're talking FrankenGrapes, here. But we don't hear many oenophiles complaining.

Researchers aren't exactly sure why the Norton, which is grown in many vineyards around the state and is possibly the country's oldest grape, fights fungal pathogens better than other varieties. But they believe it has something to do with a certain protein, which is carried in larger quantities by Norton.

"The hot, humid environment of Missouri is perfect for the growth of fungal pathogens such as mildew, yet Norton resists the fungus," says Walter Gassmann, a researcher in the Bond Life Sciences Center and associate professor of plant sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, in a press release. "Understanding what makes Norton resistant to fungus -- and European varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, susceptible to fungus -- can help us improve grape production around the world."

Gassmann is currently studying the Arabidopsis plant, which features a gene similar to the targeted grape protein. After Gassmann added the Norton's grapevine gene to a mutated Arabidopsis plant that lacked its own gene, the plant quickly became resistant to mildew, according to the University of Missouri-Columbia's press release.

For the record, Gassmann cautions that it will be years until fungus-resistant grapes can be put into commercial production.

It's also interesting to note that, in 1873, a Norton wine made just south of St. Louis was declared the "best red wine of all nations" at a worldwide competition in Vienna.

"Many people forget that before Prohibition, Missouri was the second largest wine-producing state in the country after New York," Gassmann says, according to the release. "We see this work as eventually providing an economic impact through the high-value agriculture and tourism that wineries can provide."

We'll toast to that.