Faculty Focus

Five Questions for Lance Cadle-Davidson

Lance Cadle-Davidson joined the USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in August 2003, after completing his PhD in Plant Pathology at Cornell University.  An Adjunct Associate Professor of Plant Pathology at Cornell with 100% research responsibilities on grapevine fungal and oomycete pathogens, he provides nation-wide leadership on the genetics of host resistance and pathogen adaptation. Working closely with grape breeders and pathologists across the United States, Cadle-Davidson has characterized the genetics and biology of several new powdery mildew resistance sources and has facilitated implementing the use of DNA markers in breeding programs.

What are the major challenges in your field?
We have the knowledge in place to manage powdery mildew by using genetics instead of sole reliance on fungicides, and could reduce by more than 90% the amount of fungicides applied to manage powdery mildew.  The barriers are marketing and consumer perception rather than scientific knowledge.  For instance, there are grape genes that the powdery mildew fungus requires in order to infect successfully.  Our research team has shown that by simply silencing one of those ‘susceptibility’ genes, we obtain a Chardonnay clone resistant to powdery mildew.  While the processes we use to develop resistant Chardonnay are adapted from nature and are more precise than previous breeding practices, commercial releases of such transgenic varieties have not been pursued due to consumer perception.  As scientists, we meet this challenge by continuing to educate consumers and working alongside industry stakeholders to determine how to effectively translate the science to application.

How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?
For over 150 years, scientists have been trying to combat powdery mildew with chemicals, cultural controls, and interspecific hybrids, but powdery mildew still remains a problem everywhere grapes are grown.  While the research target to manage powdery mildew is unchanged, the past decade has brought huge advances in genetic technologies.  Now that we are able to sequence entire genomes of plants and pathogens at relatively low cost, we have identified several of the genes that the pathogen uses to overcome new fungicides, and several of the grape genes that provide natural resistance to powdery mildew and other pathogens.  However, the newly emerging technology that I expect will have the biggest impact in agriculture (and medicine) over the next 10-20 years is genome editing, exemplified by CRISPR technology.  Genome editing tools like CRISPR allow precise modifications to be made in specific target gene sequences to alter gene expression – and importantly for grape improvement, genome editing can result in improved non-transgenic varieties.

If your lab was on fire and you could only escape with one item, what would it be?
Without hesitation, my research team – I’d pile them on my back.  And when we were safely outside, I doubt many tears would be shed.  Our lab space was designed in the 1800s to be an attic, not a 21st century scientific laboratory.  The tile floors are warped and rotting, the electrical is maxed out, the air quality is poor, and there is no handicapped accessibility. The world-class research our small research team has produced is particularly impressive given the inadequate facilities where the magic happens.

What was the last wine you enjoyed?
Fulkerson Winery’s Burntray – I am a big fan of Noiret, and in general, my most meaningful and memorable tasting experiences come from the new varieties developed by my grape-breeding colleagues.  I particularly enjoy the recent Cornell and Minnesota wine grapes from the Reisch and Luby programs.  In addition, there is a revolution happening in raisin and dessert grape production in California, driven by impressive genetic advances by several public and private breeders, most notably by David Ramming who recently retired from USDA-ARS in Parlier, CA.  I love tasting grape progress!

Has anything about the grape and wine industry in New York surprised you? 
I’m surprised there is not greater interest in producing dessert grapes for the local market. During a research visit to South Korea, I was struck by their use of Cornell-derived, labrusca-type hybrid dessert grapes growing under high tunnels in an environment strikingly similar to the fabulous Finger Lakes.

Bonus question: What was the best piece of research advice you have received? 
Focus, focus, focus.  The problem is, I have been too focused on my research interests to listen.