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Researchers Discover First Grape DNA Virus, Sequence N. American Grape Genome

At MSU's Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove, research has snagged the attention of France
Norton Grape
The Norton Grape grows in the vineyards of the Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove, about an hour east of Springfield. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore)

In Mountain Grove, on the north side of US Highway 60, the grapevines are just beginning to bear this season’s harvest.  As Jennifer Moore reports, the scientists growing these grapes have just made two breakthroughs in their field.

[Sound: hum of laboratory equipment]

The significance behind these grapes rests in this Mountain Grove laboratory. Bottles of saline and chemicals line the shelves above countertops of microscopes. Here at the Fruit Experiment Station, owned and operated by Missouri State University, researchers have just sequenced, for the first time, the genome of a North American grape.

So, for those of you who might be a little rusty on your life sciences, remember that a genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA. And sequencing that genome is the process of pinpointing the exact structure of that whole set. It’s no small task, even for a tiny grape.

According to research professor Dr. Wenping Qui, the first grape genome was sequenced and published in 2007 in France…but that was the genome of a European grape.

Qui says now that a North American grape’s genome has been sequenced, it will almost certainly have far-reaching implications.

“Because north American grapes—most North American grapes—are resistant to most diseases,” Qui says.

And it’s the disease-resistant nature of the Norton grape in particular that is fueling much of this research. The Norton is an icon of Missouri red wines, and it’s known for being highly resistant to mildew and fungal diseases that have devastated other varieties.

Now, scientists will be able to identify which of the Norton grape’s genes are responsible for that disease resistance, and they will be able to crossbreed the Norton with grapes more susceptible to disease.

The researchers started by extracting DNA from the Norton here in this lab. They then sent that DNA to a contracted company in Texas for sequencing.

That company sent back the data in the form of short sequences…and now, a bioinformatics specialist is assembling the tiny fragments of information. 

“And we acquired over 13 million of these short sequences,” Qiu said.

Before we got to meet the bioinformatics specialist putting those pieces together, Qiu gives me a tour of the lab.

“This is the place we got the DNA from Norton leaves,” Qiu said.

The person who gets to sift through all of those fragments is Aarthi Talla, who started working here in May and hit the ground running.

“It’s just, you know, putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” Talla said.

[Sound: computer keyboard, mouse]

Moore:  “So, we’re looking at a pretty large computer monitor here, with, basically, a bunch of alphabetical letters, basically.  So, as the researcher, what are you looking for?”

Talla:  “Well, just to tell what these are.  These are nothing but the basis of the DNA. So this is what the code of life is.”

In a few days, Talla will travel to Paris to work with researchers there to annotate the genes, or to find what the function of each gene is.

Apparently, the French don’t care much for the taste of Missouri’s hardy Norton grape, but when the news broke that its genome had finally been sequenced, they were more than a bit interested.

The Mountain Grove researchers also just made another discovery:  they found the first DNA virus ever discovered in grapes. That’s leading to other research about where the virus comes from, and how to keep it from spreading.

Join us tomorrow at the same time, when we’ll venture out of the lab and into the vineyards and winery, and we’ll hear about how these researchers are teaming up with their French counterparts to have a significant impact on the wine industry here and abroad.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

Bottles line the shelves in the laboratory where the Norton grape's DNA was extracted, and where researchers identified the first grape virus.  (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU) Grapes grown at the Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove will be used for research, and for wine. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU) Dr. Wenping Qiu is a research professor at the Fruit Experiment Station. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU) Dr. Chin-Feng Hwang, a breeding specialist, checks on a crossbreed between the Norton grape and the Cabernet Sauvignon. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU) This tag labels the new crossbreed between the Norton and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU) Grapes are almost ready to harvest at the Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove. (Photo credit: KSMU) The vineyards at Mountain Grove sit just north of Highway 60. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU) Bioinformatics specialist Aarthi Talla is sifting through over 13 million fragments of information to piece together the genome of the Norton Grape. She is preparing to travel to France to work with researchers there who are interested in the Norton grape's DNA. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU)