Grapes Genetics Research Reveals What Makes The Perfect Flower

Posted: May 26, 2021

Wines and table grapes exist thanks to a genetic exchange so rare that it's only happened twice in nature in the last 6 million years. And since the domestication of the grapevine 8,000 years ago, breeding has continued to be a gamble.

When today's growers cultivate new varieties—trying to produce better-tasting and more disease-resistant grapes—it takes two to four years for breeders to learn whether they have the genetic ingredients for the perfect flower.

Females set fruit, but produce sterile pollen. Males have stamens for pollen, but lack fruit. The perfect flower, however, carries both sex genes and can self-pollinate. These hermaphroditic varieties generally yield bigger and better-tasting berry clusters, and they're the ones researchers use for additional cross-breeding.

Now, Cornell University scientists have worked with the University of California, Davis, to identify the DNA markers that determine grape flower sex. In the process, they also pinpointed the genetic origins of the perfect flower. Their paper, "Multiple Independent Recombinations Led to Hermaphroditism in Grapevine," published April 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"This is the first genomic evidence that grapevine flower sex has multiple independent origins," said Jason Londo, corresponding author on the paper and a research geneticist in the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Grape Genetics Unit, located at Cornell AgriTech. Londo is also an adjunct associate professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"This study is important to breeding and production because we designed genetic markers to tell you what exact flower sex signature every vine has," Londo said, "so breeders can choose to keep only the combinations they want for the future."

By Erin Rodger
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