Why the World's Most Popular Wine Grapes Are Vulnerable to a Pandemic

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iStock

When you're in the wine shop looking for the right wine to pair with your meal or bring to the party, the variety on the shelves seems rich and diverse, their taste influenced by the grape, soil, climate, and age. Among the most famous are the French "noble wines"—cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, and sauvignon blanc—so called for being associated with high quality and easy growth in a variety of places.

But it turns out that many of the most famous grapes in the world are like nobility in another way: They're as inbred as a royal family, and have been for hundreds—and in some cases thousands—of years.

"Scientists are getting really concerned that this is setting up the perfect scenario for a great pandemic," Kevin Begos, whose new book, Tasting the Past, explores the history, archaeology, genetics, and future of wine, said at a recent book release event in New York City. They fear that a single merciless pathogen could wipe out many grapes around the world in the same way that a single fungus, Phytophthora infestans, eradicated the variety of potato common across Ireland in the 1840s, causing the great famine.

The vast majority of wine produced across the world derives from a single grapevine species: Vitis venifera. The domesticated grape has thousands of varieties, and quite a lot of genetic diversity among them, according to a 2010 paper in PNAS that analyzed genome-wide genetic variation of more than 1000 samples of V. vinifera subsp. vinifera and its wild relative, V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris. But that's not true for all grapes: Nearly 75 percent of cultivars had a first-degree relationship to at least one other. They were either parents or children.

The most popular commercial wines are made from a handful of these inbred grapes. Sauvignon blanc, for instance, has a first-degree relationship with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and chenin blanc, among many others. That genetically cozy family isn't unusual. You see it all over the grapevine.

Another problem is how grapes reproduce in vineyards. Instead of pollinating these hermaphroditic plants or growing them from seeds, as might happen naturally, grape growers generally make new plants from cuttings of existing ones, essentially cloning the same vines over and over.

They use this method to produce consistent flavor quality—and it's nice to decant a bottle of your favorite wine and know what to expect with the first sip. But this practice has kept some popular grapes in relative genetic stasis for a long time. Take pinot, parent of chardonnay and gamay, which has been cloned for 2000 years. Genetically, it's remained virtually unchanged—but the organisms that prey on it have not. "All those insects and pathogens and mildews that attack grape vines have been evolving," Begos said. "And they always figure out new ways to attack the grape vines."

Despite the wide use of pesticides—in the last 10 years, 260 million pounds of pesticides were put on wine grapes in California alone—"the industry is losing the arms race to the pathogens," Sean Myles, an author of the 2010 PNAS grape genome study, told Begos in Tasting the Past. "It’s really only a matter of time. If we just keep using the same genetic material, we’re doomed.”

The good news is that grape diversity could be the key to preventing rosé season from disappearing. Scientists are looking outside the noble wines and their popular cousins to old, wild, and lesser-known varieties, which "turn out to have natural disease resistance, and they've kept evolving," Begos said.

The idea is create hybrids selected for specific traits—not just pest resistance, but an ability to withstand greater heat in an era of climate change, adaptability to a wider variety of soils, and other resilient qualities.

One effort is VitisGen, a USDA-funded project involving researchers from a handful of American universities, including UC Davis, Cornell University, and the University of Minnesota. By studying the genomes of a variety of grapes, they're creating an enormous database of genetic traits. They're also experimenting with crossbreeding. Some of this genetic tweaking is decidedly old school, including pollinating grapes by hand.

Begos tells Mental Floss that they're especially interested in developing grapes that are resistant to downy mildew (Plasmopara viticola), a potential plague a la the potato famine. It can cause total crop loss if not controlled.

When it comes to selecting traits, it probably won't be flavor they'll be pulling from wild grapes, which "are really kind of terrible," Begos said. (In Tasting the Past, he quotes wine experts who describe the flavor of a fox grape as combining "animal fur and candied fruits.”) It's generally hardiness they're looking for. The concord grape in your kid's PB&J, for example, is "really tough," Begos said. Select some of its hardy genes and cross them with, say, the peppery flavor genes of the syrah grape—which the researchers have also identified—and maybe you can create a genetically resilient hybrid.

"The University of Minnesota has already had success identifying cold-hardy wine grape genes, and breeding them into new varieties that have impressed the toughest critics," Begos says, pointing to a 2015 top 10 wine list from New York Times food critic Eric Asimov. Number two on the list was made from hybrid grapes developed by UM.

You can do your part to encourage wine diversity by getting adventurous with your vino, trying a grape you've never heard of or blends from new regions. Check out organic and small wineries, which are experimenting with old cultivars and new varieties. And don't be afraid of a future with genetically tweaked grapes. We've been modifying them as long as we've been growing them. As Begos writes of these efforts, "At heart they’re unlocking flavor, disease-resistance, and growth genes that may be tens of millions of years old. To me these scientists are doing exactly what ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks did: refining wine grapes to produce tastes we enjoy."

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

A Dracula Ant's Jaws Snap at 200 Mph—Making It the Fastest Animal Appendage on the Planet

Ant Lab, YouTube
Ant Lab, YouTube

As if Florida’s “skull-collecting” ants weren’t terrifying enough, we’re now going to be having nightmares about Dracula ants. A new study in the journal Royal Society Open Science reveals that a species of Dracula ant (Mystrium camillae), which is found in Australia and Southeast Asia, can snap its jaws shut at speeds of 90 meters per second—or the rough equivalent of 200 mph. This makes their jaws the fastest part of any animal on the planet, researchers said in a statement.

These findings come from a team of three researchers that includes Adrian Smith, who has also studied the gruesome ways that the skull-collecting ants (Formica archboldi) dismember trap-jaw ants, which were previously considered to be the fastest ants on record. But with jaw speeds of just over 100 miles per hour, they’re no match for this Dracula ant. (Fun fact: The Dracula ant subfamily is named after their habit of drinking the blood of their young through a process called "nondestructive cannibalism." Yikes.)

Senior author Andrew Suarez, of the University of Illinois, said the anatomy of this Dracula ant’s jaw is unusual. Instead of closing their jaws from an open position, which is what trap-jaw ants do, they use a spring-loading technique. The ants “press the tips of their mandibles together to build potential energy that is released when one mandible slides across the other, similar to a human finger snap,” researchers write.

They use this maneuver to smack other arthropods or push them away. Once they’re stunned, they can be dragged back to the Dracula ant’s nest, where the unlucky victims will be fed to Dracula ant larvae, Suarez said.

Researchers used X-ray imaging to observe the ants’ anatomy in three dimensions. High-speed cameras were also used to record their jaws snapping at remarkable speeds, which measure 5000 times faster than the blink of a human eye. Check out the ants in slow-motion in the video below.

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