Jun 20

Fighting vine threat

Tag: Oenologiesigi.hiss @ 15:44

NEW DISCOVERIES: Researchers crack genetic code of bacterium that causes Pierce’s disease
KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat Grape grower Richard Rued, checking vines Wednesday, says Pierce’s disease is a persistent problem in his Dry Creek vineyards. The tell-tale sign of the infection is stunted vine growth when compared with others, at left, which are growing normally. Researchers trying to save the California wine industry from the dreaded Pierce’s disease have made a series of promising discoveries they hope will lead to a cure for the vineyard scourge.

They’ve cracked the genetic code of the bacterium that causes Pierce’s disease and have used the information to engineer grapevines impervious to the disease.

„Those plants are quite resistant . . . in our initial studies, so it seems to work as we had hoped,“ said Steven Lindow, a professor of plant biology at UC Berkeley.

Lindow’s discovery is one of the most promising of several breakthroughs made by researchers trying to protect California’s $19 billion wine industry from the most deadly threat since the phylloxera epidemic.

Pierce’s disease has been around since the 1800s, but in the late 1990s a little bug called the glassy winged sharpshooter proved more effective than any prior insect at moving the disease-causing bacterium around vineyards. It spread Pierce’s Disease to hundreds of acres of vineyards in Kern County in 2001, killing them all. The industry has been on red alert ever since, warning that its spread northward was likely.

„It’s a real threat,“ said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. „If it got established in Sonoma County and was indeed effective at moving (the bacterium) around vineyards, it could put people out of the grape business.“

The disease is already in Sonoma County, but is spread by the blue-green sharpshooter, which is less of a threat because it doesn’t fly as far or eat as much as its glassy winged cousin.

To better understand and combat the disease, the state in 2001 established the Pierce’s disease/Glassy Winged Sharpshooter Board, an industry group that advises the state secretary of agriculture how to spend the millions of dollars raised every year by an assessment on grape growers.

The board earlier this month lowered the assessment on growers from $1.50 per $1,000 of crop to $1. The reduction was meant to reflect economic difficulties for some growers hurt by spring frosts, and for all facing higher costs, especially gasoline.

The main reason the assessments declined is because the board decided the time has come to focus the research on turning scientific breakthroughs into solutions the industry can use, said Steve McIntyre. His business, Monterey Pacific, is one of the largest grape growers in the state.

McIntyre said Lindow’s research is some of the most promising and could change the state’s fight against the disease.

Lindow appears to have figured out how to disrupt the bacteria’s „cell-to-cell communication,“ slowing the spread through the grapevines, McIntyre said.

It’s exciting research because bacteria plague all kinds of crops, and this research could provide key insights that could help other industries, as well.

Lindow said he has figured out how to isolate a molecule that disease-causing bacteria use to signal one another. In essence, when it gets too crowded in a vine, the bacteria communicate with one another, slowing down their growth rate. This gives them time to spread to other areas of the vine with more food.

Lindow realized that if a bacterium could be tricked into thinking the vine is already filled with other bacteria, then it would automatically shut down.

„We’re trying to confuse it into thinking it’s crowded when it isn’t,“ he said.

Now the trick is to partner with a company that can effectively help turn these scientific discoveries into a marketable cure for Pierce’s disease, McIntyre said.

This could take the form of another bacterium that transfers the signal molecule into an existing vine, a spray that the vines absorb, or the creation of vines genetically modified to resist the bacterium, Lindow said.

The breakthrough is an example of how decoding genomes is living up to the hype. „We’re pretty pleased,“ Lindow said. „Molecular biology is pretty fantastic these days.“ 

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