Leader in plant genetics discusses processes used to improve grape production

A calm crowd congregated in the Monsanto Auditorium Wednesday, Oct. 3, as speaker Dennis Gray, Ph.D. of the University of Florida, began his presentation on the genetic engineering of grapes and development of intragenic varieties.

Gray, a biologist at the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center, has been working with a team of scientists to create one of the largest biotech grape research endeavors in the world, according to the website greenmarketproducers.com. He opened the MU lecture with some interesting facts about grapes including: grapes are the world’s most valuable fruit crop, and bunches of the fruit can exceed $1,000 when processed as wine.

The bulk of his presentation analyzed three different approaches to the genetic engineering of grapes. The breeding approach repeats selection of the best individuals of a plant population over time. The transgenic approach genetically modifies the grape by inserting genes directly into a single plant cell. The more popular, intragenic approach improves existing varieties by eliminating undesirable features and activating dormant traits.  The intragenic approach was shown to be more ecological and consumer-friendly.

“We’re trying to dramatically increase the acreage of the southeastern native muscadine grape by genetically modifying it to have increased fruit rot resistance and seedlessness,” Gray said.  “Adding these traits will expand the market range of the grape.”

Gray went on to describe how these approaches, mainly transgenic and intragenic, are critical for fungal resistance in grapes. These approaches are essential in increasing the survival rate and expansion of the growth of grapes in a larger variety of environments.

Pictures of the grape vines genetically engineered with the transgenic or intragenic genes were shown to be healthy. Gray noted that the grape vines specifically having the intragenic gene were resistant to black rot and powdery mildew.  The grape vines having the transgenic gene were resistant to black rot.

Gray concluded by discussing the possibility of inserting two bio-promoters at once. The goal of this method would be to produce a grape plant that is rot resistant and seedless.

Michelle Folta, audience member and a volunteer at the plant transformation core facility, said she enjoyed the presentation.

“I was interested in seeing how transformation is done on other plants besides soybeans,” Folta said.

By Matt McCormack
Corner Post Staff Writer