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Research into how we got white wine could lead to new grape varieties

Australian scientists have pinpointed the genetic difference between red and white grapes – a discovery that could lead to the production of new grape varieties.

It has long been known that the ancestors of modern grapes were all red but noone knew how it came about. Now, however, a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has found that a rare genetic occurrence thousands of years ago gave us white grapes.

The team studied part of a red grapevine chromosome carrying the genes for red colour and compared it to a white variety chromosome. Dr Mandy Walker, from CSIRO Plant Industries laboratories, said, ‘Our research suggests that extremely rare and independent mutations in two genes produced a single white grapevine that was the parent of almost all of the world’s white grape varieties. If only one gene had been mutated, most grapes would still be red and we would not have the more than 3,000 white grape cultivars available today.’

Already understanding of the two genes that control grape colour has been useful practically as the research team have been able to produce a marker than can be used in future vine breeding to predict berry colour in seedlings, without waiting two to three years for them to grow into mature vines and produce fruit. ‘The marker gives us a highly accurate way of selecting for berry colour traits when breeding grapevines,’ said Dr Walker.

But, beyond this, the discovery also has great potential for producing interesting and exciting new varieties with novel colours through genetic modification in the future.