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Cornell Researchers awarded $2 Million to Streamline Breeding of Next Generation Grapes

By Amanda Garris

Bruce Reisch
Horticulture professor Bruce Reisch pollinating a grape flower.  Reisch's program focuses on developing improved wine and table grape cultivars adapted to cool climates.

Got Concord in the refrigerator, Pinot in the wine rack, or Thompson Seedless in the fruit bowl? These old favorites will be making room for new disease resistant, cold hardy varieties with a boost from a $2 million federal grant.

“Grape breeding has never been terribly swift—it can take 20 years to evaluate a new selection—but this project will bring greater efficiency to the breeding,” says Bruce Reisch, Cornell grape breeder and project director. “We are focusing on developing wine, juice, table and raisin grapes with three attributes: fruit quality, cold hardiness, and resistance to powdery mildew, a fungal pathogen that is costly to control in vineyards across the United States.”

Reisch put the project together with Lance Cadle-Davidson, a plant pathologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). They assembled a team of 25 scientists from ten universities to streamline genome-wide DNA analysis and screening for the targeted traits for an ambitious alliance that includes all six publicly-funded grape breeding programs across the United States.

“Much of our breeding process will not change: breeders will still develop new breeding lines by crossing parents with complementary strengths,” he said. “However, by the end of the five-year project we expect to be able to cull seedlings that lack promise very early based on their genes alone. This will make us much more efficient, since breeders can focus their field testing on seedlings that are already elite.”

The linking of DNA markers to specific traits will also allow breeders to develop varieties with enhanced disease resistance based on multiple resistance genes, which Reisch hopes will satisfy consumers and growers interested in organic or sustainable production. 

The project team at Cornell includes plant pathologists Robert Seem, Wayne Wilcox, and David Gadoury; extension specialist Hans Walter-Peterson; enologists Anna Katharine Mansfield and Gavin Sacks; Chris Owens, Peter Cousins, and Ed Buckler with the USDA-ARS in Geneva and Ithaca; and experts with Cornell’s Life Sciences Core Laboratories for genomics and computational biology.

The grant was funded by the by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which supports multi-institution, interdisciplinary research on crops including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and ornamentals.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer based in Geneva, NY.