$10M SCRI Project Seeks to Defy Diseases

A team of researchers received the first round of funding from a $10 million grant awarded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) to begin a multi-disciplinary, collaborative project focused on cultivating disease-resistant grapes that can be grown sustainably with reduced pesticide and fossil fuel use.

The national, multi-institutional project team is led by University of Minnesota’s Dr. Matthew Clark. The project was built with strong industry support and guidance, especially from the National Grape Research Alliance, which has been involved in this research from its initiation with the first VitisGen project in 2011.

Remarkable advances from VitisGen, led by Dr. Bruce Reisch of Cornell University, yielded more sources of disease resistance in five years than were discovered worldwide in the previous 50. New tools developed in VitisGen2, co-led by Bruce and Dr. Lance Cadle-Davidson of the USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit, will continue to accelerate the pace of discovery. Under Matt’s continued leadership (he was a PI in VitisGen2), this third installment will allow researchers to understand and share how to best deploy the genetic resources to bring more than a decade of work across the finish line—with Bruce, Lance and many previous and new researchers enthusiastically involved.

The project, officially titled “Completing the Grapevine Powdery Mildew Resistance Pipeline: From Genes-on-the-Shelf to Sticks-in-the-Ground and known informally as VitisGen3, aims to use cutting-edge technologies to advance grape breeding and sustainable grape production, completing the pipeline for disease-resistant vines from genes to vineyards to consumers. An important primary objective for this work is to conclusively test candidate genes to confirm the resistance or susceptibility they confer. This often-overlooked step in molecular breeding will remove the guesswork from breeding using these genes—it’s what’s meant by “genes on the shelf” in the project title. New tools for in-field, AI-enabled phenotyping will help breeders objectively analyze infinite numbers of vines for individuals with traits of current or future interest. This high-tech phenotyping info also will help vineyard managers to detect diseases early (before visual symptoms appear), estimate crop load and quantify vineyard variability. Plus, knowing that being “resistant” to disease does not mean “immune,” the team will develop epidemiologically based management programs that effectively and sustainably keep vines clean. A robust extension objective will train vineyard managers and extension agents across the U.S. in their use.

“We hope to use current technologies to resolve our understanding of how specific genes in grapes overcome powdery mildew, a common fungal disease that can reduce photosynthesis, defoliate vines and increase the risk of winter damage,” Matt says. “A collaborative approach to solving—and preserving—powdery mildew resistance in grapevines brings scientific and Extension expertise from around the country together for synergistic, sustainable benefits for farmers and consumers.”

In addition to studying the genetics of disease resistance, the researchers also will explore consumer behavior to effectively encourage the purchase of sustainably produced grape and wine products. By employing eye tracking technology, they seek to learn what features customers use in decision-making, especially in environments with a lot of information inputs, like wine shops. What does it take to effectively engage consumers and nudge them toward sustainable choices? Ask this team in four years.

The VitisGen3 project mobilizes more than two dozen scientists from institutions across the country, including the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Breeding Insight, and these 12 universities: Cornell University, Michigan State University, Missouri State University, North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University, University of Arkansas, University of California – Davis, University of Georgia, University of Maryland – Eastern Shore, University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech and Washington State University.

This article was adapted from the University of Minnesota’s October 7, 2022, press release announcing this new SCRI project. Read it here.