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Faculty Focus

Five Questions for Erin Galarneau

Erin GalarneauErin Galarneau is a molecular biologist and curator of the USDA ARS Plant Genetics Research Unit (PGRU) Cold Hardy Grape (Vitis) collection. She received her Bachelor of Science of biology from Northland College, Ashland, WI in 2010. Before starting her doctorate, she worked as a research technician in Geneva, NY at the Experiment Station and worked as a USDA technician in Davis, CA. Both projects focused on grapevine diseases. Erin completed her PhD in Plant Pathology from University of California Davis in 2019, under the guidance of Dr. Kendra Baumgartner. She completed a post-doc with Dr. Andy Walker, studying rootstock-induced resistance to grapevine fanleaf virus within new rootstock populations. Erin started her role at USDA ARS PGRU in July 2021.

You are trained as a plant pathologist and have previous experience addressing trunk diseases of grapes. What inspired you to get involved with plant pathology and grapes?

I found plant pathology while doing my senior thesis as an undergrad at a small liberal arts college in northern Wisconsin. I was struggling to find a topic to focus on because I wanted microbiology and plant biology to be a part of my topic. A friend from California asked, “What about a research proposal about sudden oak death?” Having not lived anywhere but Wisconsin as of 2009, I had no idea what they were talking about. I started reading and thought “I have found my biology!” I saw the researchers were in the field of plant pathology and wondered “What the heck is plant pathology?” My love for the field has grown from there.

I started in grapes by wanting to work on powdery mildew with Drs Lance Cadle-Davidson, David Gadoury, and Bob Seem at the Cornell Experiment Station (now Agritech) in 2011. I remember the first time being asked “Why grapes?” at a conference and I answered very coherently “Uhhh, it’s a juicy topic…” I couldn’t articulate a clear answer at the time. However, after 10 years in grapes I can’t imagine working in another crop. The scientific and industry communities around grapes is such a dynamic, engaged, and intelligent group. I couldn’t have asked for a better system to work in. And yes, I still think it’s a juicy topic.

What is the function of the germplasm collection and what does a curator of the grape germplasm collection do?

You can think of the germplasm as a living library, representing the diversity and history of grapevine species. My collection has 26 different species and about 1200 accessions, focused on wild species, cold tolerant species, French-American hybrids, and wild hybrids. A sister germplasm exists in Davis, CA that has approximately 4000 accessions, dominantly Vitis vinifera cultivars.

As curator, my job is to manage the grapevines in the field (approximately 2500 vines) with the help of the farm team, share the resources with stakeholders, and describe the collection (in a way, like a library catalog). This means in a day I can go from collecting material to ship around the country or world, to running samples on advanced equipment to determine the concentration of anthocyanins in berries from each accession, to working with top research and industry leaders on developing crop vulnerability statements that are submitted to congress.

What are the major challenges in managing the grape germplasm collection at AgriTech?

Maintaining the grapes. Grapevines in New York grow like weeds in the summer and have risk of freeze damage in the winter. My collection consists of many grapevines where these are the only two specimens of that accession in the world, and they are only in the field. Finding alternative ways to protect the resource is of critical focus. Luckily, there are many people to help in the field and in the lab to protect the collection.

What research projects and collaborations are going on now in your program?

My job is to distribute, acquire, maintain, document, and characterize the cold hardy grapevine collection here in Geneva, NY. For much of my work, I rely not only on my team but collaborations to advance these five goals. I have collaborations started with Cornell faculty and industry to focus on aroma and other metabolites of juice from the collection, I will be characterizing cold hardiness, working on high-throughput techniques to screen the collection for resistance to numerous pathogens, and filling in gaps for genetic tools. I am collaborating with my sister germplasm in Davis, CA to unite the way we document and characterize, so that as requests for material come in researchers can utilize these traits to determine material they want. When travel is allowed again, I will be working with scientists in USDA in Parlier, CA and University of California Davis to add more accessions to the collection from regions around the United States.

Has anything about the grape and wine industry in New York surprised you?

How much it has grown in the past decade! I was excited to see how the grape and wine industry has bloomed here.