Not Groundhog Day

Obviously, I’m a fan of all grape research. I enjoy attending academic conferences and listening to scientific talks, reading abstracts and sifting through industry media for the science that breaks through to the news. But what really makes my day is learning about research that takes the unexpected turn, when scientists come at a problem from a completely different, even opposite angle. And better yet, when it works!

Probably one of the first examples (for me) of this kind of research crossed my radar in 2019. Previous studies had shown that a specific blend of three volatile terpenes in the odor profile of grapevines attracted the destructive European Grapevine Moth, and that varying their ratio even a little bit could render vines practically invisible to the pest, from a scent perspective. So, a team led by Italian scientists set out to genetically modify vines to change the aroma they emit. The results? The aromatically altered plants were indeed less attractive to the moths! “With this evidence,” they concluded, “we suggest that a strategy based on volatile ratio modification may interfere with the host-finding behavior of L. botrana in the field, creating avenues for new pest control methods.”

Around the same time, another group from Cornell University pursued genetic methods to give a punch to the gut (literally!) of the dreaded grape mealybug, a vector of grapevine leafroll virus. Zeroing in on the pest’s preferred diet, grapevine sap, they used RNA Interference (RNAi) to genetically alter the digestive system of the mealybug to block the production of the enzymes needed to break down the sugary sap. The experimental treatment “significantly increased insect mortality over three days” and provided a new way to combat mealybugs—from the inside out.

In another of my favorite projects, USDA-ARS entomologist Rodrigo Krugner found he could use sound to disrupt the mating—and proliferation—of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the vector for Pierce’s disease. Using specialized equipment, he devised a system to record and mimic the pest’s mating calls, which vibrate at high frequency through grapevines, then send them as vibrational signals along trellising, catch-wires, posts and other vineyard architecture. “We found that playback of the right signal prevented insects from communicating, which resulted in no mating,” he says. He continues to work to apply this technique to other economically important pests that communicate via vibration.

With Groundhog Day coming up this week, I’m reminded, not of Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow, but of the movie with Bill Murray, and how easy it is to get stuck in the routine, the mind-numbingly mundane. When faced with a problem that needs solving, the blank slate of brainstorming and ideation can be daunting. Yet these innovators engaged their creativity. Rather than attacking an issue head-on, they snuck up on it from behind and found a new and novel solution.

So, cheers to the out-of-the-box thinkers! May you light the way this and every Groundhog Day!

Donnell Brown