Saint Louis University has been awarded a $4.6 million grant by the National Science Foundation to lead a Missouri-based team of researchers – including Dr. Laszlo Kovacs, biology professor at Missouri State University – 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 Saint Louis University professor Dr. Allison Miller, an evolutionary biologist specializing in perennial plant evolution and its applications to sustainable agriculture. Miller will be joined on the project by co-principal investigators based at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, the University of Missouri, Missouri State University, South Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Explaining plant biodiversity
Natural plant biodiversity is critical for adapting contemporary crops like grapevines to changing climate conditions. Grapevines around the world are 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 can resist pests and pathogens, and 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 increase the ability to use rootstocks to improve perennial crops and adapt them for changing climates.
Missouri’s role in this area
It is fitting that Missouri is at the heart of this research. 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 nearly devastated the European grape industry after they were inadvertently introduced on the continent. To produce a phylloxera-resistant vine with commercially viable berries, European stems were grafted with North American phylloxera-resistant roots to produce grafted grapevines.
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,” Miller said. “These local species are quite literally the roots of the global grape crop and have great potential to adapt grapevines for changing climates.”
About this project
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 toward 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, Danforth Plant Science Center
- Kovacs, Missouri State University
- Misha Kwasniewski, Grape and Wine Institute at the University of Missouri, Columbia
- Jason Londo, United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service-Grape Genetics Research Unit
- Anne Fennell and Dr. Qin Ma, 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 Dr. Andrew Wyatt, with the department of horticulture at the Missouri Botanical Garden, are serving as senior consultants on the project, which is currently funded through 2021.