Missouri State University research professor Wenping Qiu works in Mountain Grove to produce grapevines free of major viruses.
Missouri State University research professor Wenping Qiu works in Mountain Grove to produce grapevines free of major viruses.
Armed with technology that would be the envy of a TV show forensics lab, Missouri State University's Center for Grapevine Biotechnology in Mountain Grove is unlocking genetic secrets in grapevines that may lead to breakthroughs in agriculture and human health.

Located on MSU's Mountain Grove Research Campus, the center is led by research professors Laszlo Kovacs and Wenping Qiu and collaborates with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and researchers worldwide. There are 10 students at the center, and four are at the graduate level.

"The research has become global just as the economy has," Kovacs said. "You can't really be competitive if you don't collaborate with the right people, and the right people may be in Italy or in Hungary or in China or in Australia or in Chile."

Part of the MSU agriculture department, the center provides a unique, high-tech learning experience for area students, and it works closely with MSU's Center for Biomedical and Life Sciences in the Jordan Valley Innovation Center.

The Center for Grapevine Biotechnology has an annual research budget that ranges between $200,000 and $500,000, depending on grants, Kovacs said. He noted that the bulk of the funding recently has come from two key sources: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative Education and Extension Services and the Missouri Life Sciences Research Board.

Building a better grapevine

Through the Vitis Gene Discovery Project, Kovacs and Qiu are identifying and manipulating the genes that make native North American grape varieties like Norton resistant to fungus and pests such as phylloxera, an American relative of the aphid.

Phylloxera was accidentally introduced into Europe in the 1860s and by 1900 had devastated the European wine industry.

Because North American grapes developed alongside phylloxera, they have resistance to the pest. The Center for Grapevine Biotechnology is working to identify pathogen- and pest-resistant genes and how they work, and to find ways to breed that resistance into other varieties of grapevine without affecting grape flavor - especially important in wine-producing grapes.

While it's a simple matter to cross a pathogen-resistant plant such as Norton with a nonresistant plant like Cabernet Sauvignon and produce a resistant hybrid, the hybrid grapes do not retain the scent and flavor of the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is problematic.

"When you buy wine, you are buying a bottle of tradition," Kovacs said. "Many of these varieties come from hundreds and/or thousands of years of tradition, culture and history."

Wine drinkers and vintners want the same quality of wine someone drank 300 years ago, he added.

A breakthrough may be on the horizon with new technology that allows a hybrid rootstock, which contains the resistant genes, to be grafted onto a nonhybrid scion - the portion of the grapevine that actually produces the fruit. The resulting plant produces the traditional grape while receiving resistant proteins from the rootstock, Kovacs said.

Grapevine defense methods are the focus of professor Qiu, who studies the Norton grapevine variety in particular "to try to understand the underlying mechanism of this grape's defense against powdery mildew, downy mildew and black rot, which are the most destructive fungal diseases of grapes worldwide," he said.

A virologist by training, Qiu is director of the Missouri Grape Importation and Certification Program, and he also works with the National Clean Plant Network to produce grapevines free of major viruses.

Practical applications

Strengthening grapevine resistance to pathogens and pests may ultimately allow grape growers to reduce their dependence on chemical spraying.

"Grapes actually need an enormous amount of pesticide," Kovacs said. In fact, grapes require more chemicals per acre than row crops, he noted, but genetic manipulation could produce grapevines that can be sprayed less frequently or, perhaps, not at all. These are particularly of interest in California, where suburbs have sprung up right next to vineyards.

Genetic science also is reducing the amount of resources required to breed new plant varieties.

Grape breeders used to cross plants, then had to wait two or three years for the hybrid to produce fruit and to see what traits the plant had inherited, Kovacs said. Now, the plant's genetic inheritance can be determined at the outset.

"You can imagine the cost savings," Kovacs said. "You don't have to cultivate 300 or 400 plants" to get a handful with the desired traits. Now, as soon as the seeds germinate, DNA analysis can identify the plants with the desired genes.

"It speeds up the breeding process, especially in a perennial like grape," Qiu said, noting that traditional development of a new grape variety could take 20 to 25 years.

Human health impacts

While it is commonly known that grapes and red wine benefit cardiovascular health and provide health-promoting antioxidants, research is showing positive impact on neurological health.

Kovacs is working with Dr. Paul Durham, a neurologist with the Center for Biomedical and Life Sciences at Jordan Valley Innovation Center, who is isolating bioactive compounds from grape seed that interact with proteins that cause inflammation in facial nerves. This inflammation can cause migraines, and Durham's research could ultimately result in new treatments.

But Kovacs noted that discoveries of bioactive compounds in grapes may just be the beginning. What they are learning from the grape genome may lead to the discovery of bioactive compounds in all kinds of fruit and plant material.

MSU's Mountain Grove campus was established in 1899 as the Missouri Fruit Experiment Station. Experiments focused on orchard crops such as apples, peaches, plums, cherries and grapes. Few people are aware of Missouri's heritage as a grape-growing state, Kovacs said, but before Prohibition in 1920, Missouri was the nation's second-largest grape producer.

The state's fruit industry declined over time, but grape-growing staged a comeback with the popularity of wine consumption in the '80s and '90s, Kovacs said. Old wineries in traditional grape-growing areas such as Augusta, Hermann and St. James resurged, while the number of wineries in the state in just the last decade has more than doubled. According to a study commissioned by the Wine and Grape Board of the Missouri Department of Agricutlure, there were 50 Missouri wineries in 2007, and the economic impact of wine and grapes in the state was estimated at more than $700 million that year.

The Fruit Experiment Station, one of only three U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantine facilities for the introduction and virus testing of foreign grape varieties, became part of MSU in 1974. It was designated a research campus in 1994, and in 1997, an interdepartmental master's degree program in plant science was launched. In 1999, the Mountain Grove campus added the Mid-America Viticulture and Enology Center, funded by the Missouri wine and grape industry. The center is establishing a Ph.D. program in cooperation with the University of Missouri-Columbia. While Mizzou will oversee the program, MSU's Mountain Grove campus will provide the research component.