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$4.6 Million NSF grant will fund climate change research on grapevines

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The historic relationship between Missouri’s native grapevines and the wine industry and the threatened French wine industry is as rich as any chapter of Ozarks history.

Dr. Allison Miller, Ph.D., is a professor of evolutionary biology at St. Louis University.

Dr. Allison Miller, Ph.D., is a professor of evolutionary biology at St. Louis University.

The importance is well-known on the national and international level, as a grant from the National Science Foundation demonstrates as Saint Louis University has been awarded a $4.6 million grant to lead a team of researchers in understanding how root systems of grapevines affect the vine’s stems, leaves and fruits — the parts of perennial plants used most commonly in food production.

The five-year project will be led by Dr. Allison Miller, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist specializing in perennial plant evolution and its applications to sustainable agriculture.

Dr. Laszlo Kovacs of Missouri State University is a principal investigator on the effects of climate change on grapevines in Missouri.

Dr. Laszlo Kovacs of Missouri State University is a principal investigator on the effects of climate change on grapevines in Missouri.

Joining Miller as a principal investigator will be Laszlo Kovacs, Ph.D., Department of Biology at Missouri State University. Others will come from the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, the University of Missouri, South Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Natural plant biodiversity is critical for adapting contemporary crops such as grapevines to changing climate conditions. Grapevines around the world are typically grafted plants — when two parts of separate plants are joined. The domesticated European grapevine used in commercial wine production is grafted onto native North American root systems that resist pests, pathogens and can withstand challenging climates. These North American rootstocks can be used to subtly modify features of the plant’s stems, leaves and fruits. The project will help propel our ability to use rootstocks to improve perennial crops and adapt them for changing climates.

George Engelmann, founder of the St. Louis Academy of Sciences, and Charles V. Riley, the first state entomologist in Missouri, were early pioneers in the field, as were contemporary vintners George Husmann and Hermann Jaeger.

In the mid-1800s, tiny, sap-sucking insects from North America called phylloxera  devastated the European grape industry after they were inadvertently introduced on the continent, not unlike imported pests such as the Japanese Beetle and Emerald Ash Borer.

To produce a phylloxera-resistant vine with commercially viable berries, European stems were grafted with North American phylloxera-resistant roots to produce grafted grapevines. And the practice continues.

Grafting and the implications of this episode are relevant for the contemporary Missouri grape industry, and more broadly for North American food production.

“Rootstocks used in grape growing come primarily from species found in Missouri and other parts of North America,” explains Miller. “These local species are quite literally the roots of the global grape crop and have great potential to adapt grapevines for changing climates.”

The project will use grafting to understand root system effects on the plant’s scion traits (vine physiology, leaf shape and features of the fruit). The research team will examine the influence of rootstocks on the scion by using an experimental vineyard in Missouri and will also explore the role of environment on how grafted parts of the plant interact by surveying grafted vines in commercial vineyards across California. Finally, the team will develop a unique population, which will help them map traits observed in the scion to gene regions found in the rootstock. This will aid in the identification of new rootstock/scion combinations, which are optimal for grape production in different climates.

Improved understanding of grafting in grapevines may allow the team to apply insights to similar woody-vined perennial crops like apples, peaches, avocados, pecans and olives.

The project also includes a training component to ensure that postdoctoral research associates, Ph.D. students and undergraduates from participating institutions will receive specialized training in cutting-edge techniques of computational analysis, genomics and plant biology, helping to develop the next generation of researchers and members of the agricultural industry who will work towards agriculture sustainability in the future. Further, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. will display plantings of grafted grapevines and develop public programs around biodiversity, crop evolution and sustainable agriculture in a changing climate, among other key topics.

The co-principal investigators on the project include: Dan Chitwood, Ph.D., Danforth Plant Science Center; Laszlo Kovacs, Ph.D., Department of Biology, Missouri State University; Misha Kwasniewski, Ph.D., Grape and Wine Institute at the University of Missouri, Columbia; Jason Londo, Ph.D., United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service-Grape Genetics Research Unit; Anne Fennell, Ph.D., and Qin Ma, Ph.D., Department of Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science and BioSNTR at South Dakota State University. Peter Cousins, with E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, California, and Andrew Wyatt, Ph.D., with the Department of Horticulture at the Missouri Botanical Garden, are serving as senior consultants on the project, which is currently funded through 2021.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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