Revealing the Family Tree of Grapes

Genomics researcher Sean Myles developed a technique for testing the genetic variation commonly found in grapes, then scanned the US Department of Agriculture grape germplasm collection to reveal how modern grape varieties are like a closely related family. His findings have been recently published in “Genetic structure and domestication history of the grape” and they include a fascinating diagram, a version of which you can see below, that is like a “family tree” for grapes:

Grape Family Tree You can see that Cabernet Sauvigon‘s parents are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, and that there’s a close relationship between Pinot Noir and siblings Gamay and Chardonnay. But this “family tree” also shows that there is a disturbing lack of diversity between grape varieties after thousands of years of widespread vegetative propagation, the production of new plants from portions of others. According to the paper,

“Vegetitive propagation discouraged the generation of unique cultivars through crosses. The grape currently faces severe pathogen pressures, and the long-term sustainability of the grape and wine industries will rely on the exploitation of the grape’s tremendous natural genetic diversity.”

Our favourite grapes have been propagated for thousands of years, ignoring the diversity and benefits that cross-breeding could have offered. Although they’ve created clones of varieties that have unique traits, grapegrowers haven’t been motivated to breed new cultivars. The result of this lack of cross breeding is that we now have grape varieties that are more susceptible to diseases and pests.

It’s time we invested more in breeding programmes that create sturdier vines and new grapes with characteristics that produce new and exciting wines we can all enjoy.

For the abstract of the paper and a link to a full PDF of the paper go to:

For articles discussing the paper’s findings in more detail see The New York TimesLack of sex among grapes tangles a family vine” and BBC NewsNew grapes needed to keep wine flowing.”

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