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Super immunity isn’t just for science fiction movies

Bio geneticist experiments with genetics of grapes to breed better crops
Monday, July 15, 2013

Norton grapeBlockbuster movies often include superhuman characters with unnatural powers, and the science and technology used to generate these characters is developed by mad scientists in a laboratory lit by moonlight. Dr. Laszlo Kovacs, professor of biology at Missouri State University, conducts experiments to produce immune hybrid species as well. Instead of humans, though, he specializes in the biogenetics of grapes.

“Agriculture is facing a huge challenge with climate change, and the answer is already in these plants,” said Kovacs. “The ability to adapt to different conditions is in the grape’s genome, so if we can figure out what makes grapes able to handle these very difficult conditions, then we can use this information to breed crop plants that will survive under these conditions…not only survive or grow, but thrive.”

An enologist in the 1800s, Hermann Jaeger, is credited with saving the European wine industry by exporting rootstock of Missouri grapevines that were immune to phylloxera, a pest that had accidentally been transported to Europe. Because phylloxera was a non-native plant to Europe, it threatened the wine industry. By sharing the rootstock with winemakers in France, new hybrid varieties of grapes were formed – varieties immune to the pest.

Kovacs’ studies build upon that piece of Missouri history, and his research consortium has been excited to see how successful Missouri grapevines have been at producing disease-resistant plants.

“Nowadays there’s a revolution in genetics,” said Kovacs. “DNA sequencing is becoming very inexpensive. For a relatively small amount of money, you can gather an enormous amount of sequencing information, either from the DNA directly or the RNA, which represents the expressed portion of the genome. This is an enabling technology, so we will be able to see what type of genes will be expressed in one plant and what sort of genes are not expressed. And that gives us tremendous information.”

For more information, contact Kovacs at (417) 836-6289.

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About Missouri State University
Missouri State University is a public, comprehensive metropolitan system with a statewide mission in public affairs, whose purpose is to develop educated persons. The university’s identity is distinguished by its public affairs mission, which entails a campus-wide commitment to foster expertise and responsibility in ethical leadership, cultural competence and community engagement.

College of Natural and Applied Sciences
The College of Natural and Applied Sciences incorporates more than 20 undergraduate and 13 graduate programs along with one cooperative program offered through a partnership with Missouri S&T. The academic departments that make up the college include: biology; chemistry; computer science; engineering; geography, geology and planning; hospitality and restaurant administration; mathematics; and physics, astronomy and materials science. Students have the opportunity for intense hands-on research and internships through a number of outreach and research centers and work alongside faculty who are producing cutting-edge research in their fields.

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