Researchers uncork the secret to a more sustainable wine industry: gene editing

Toothaches and headaches and heartaches and backaches, fevers and nausea and sneezing and wheezing—in ancient Greece, no matter the malady, there was one nearly universally prescribed cure: wine.

Even after centuries of medical advances and the advent of real pharmaceutical remedies, wine hasn’t been completely written off as a curative drink. Enjoyed in moderation, red wine—packed with antioxidants—can lower the risk of coronary artery disease and heart attacks.

But in order to make heart-healthy wines, vintners must first have healthy vines. And since wine grapes are susceptible to a host of pests, pathogens and parasites, keeping plants productive can often devolve into a war with nature.

During the hot and humid summer months, grapes can fall victim to downy mildew, a fungal disease that can quickly imperil entire vineyards if left unchecked. Most grape growers resort to fungicides to inhibit the spread of downy mildew and protect their crops.

A report by the Robert Mondavi Institute Center for Wine Economics revealed that in California—the nation’s foremost wine-producing state—grape growers spend nearly $200 million each year to control mildew, primarily with chemical fungicides.

But when it comes to the future of the wine industry, the glass is half full, thanks to plant scientists who are breeding a better, more sustainable grape.

With CRISPR gene editing, Rutgers University researchers are using genes already present in the plants’ natural genomes to improve Chardonnay grapes.

With CRISPR, they can delete the individual genes that code for downy mildew susceptibility or introduce desirable grape genes that produce greater fungal disease resistance.

On average, grape growers must apply pesticides six to 12 times per season just to keep downy mildew under control. Gene-edited, resistant varieties could be the cure for what ails the grape industry, allowing farmers to grow high-quality grapes while shrinking their annual pesticide use. That means greater long-term economic and environmental sustainability for modern vineyards—something we can all say “cheers” to.