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Florida wineries seek help through GM grapevine

merlot vines
Researchers have genetically modified this merlot grapevine to resist Pierce's disease by inserting a gene which produces a bacteria-killing protein.  

By Ann Kellan
CNN Sci-Tech

GAINESVILLE, Florida (CNN) -- To help quench the thirst of Florida, researchers are working on genetically modified grapes that can survive the harsh conditions in the sunshine state.

France and California are known for their wines, but Florida? The intense heat and humidity spell trouble for finicky wine grapes. And worse, the tasty varieties usually die on the vine from Pierce's Disease.

But botanists have changed the genetic structure of one merlot grape so that it resists the disease.

"It will be a good thing for this industry. It will open up a whole world of grapes that we can grow that we can't currently grow now," said Jeanne Burgess of the Lakeridge Winery.

One of only a few vineyards in the state, Lakeridge grows mostly muscadines, hardy grapes native to the Southeast and naturally resistant to Pierce's.

On the Scene with Ann Kellan: Genetic modification coming to wine?  

But grape varieties used to make more popular wines cannot grow in Florida, in large part because of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a common insect in the Southeast, which injects grape leaves with Pierce's.

In an attempt to kill the bacteria, Dennis Gray and his University of Florida research team inserted a silkworm gene called shiva, which makes a bacteria-killing protein, into cells of some of the vulnerable grapevine plants.

Will the protein kill Pierce's disease in the grapevines?

"We're very optimistic, but we're on pins and needles waiting to find out whether this works," Gray said.

It will take several years to develop and test genetically modified vines. Therefore, it will probably be five or ten years before the grapes make it into a bottle of wine for consumers.

Heated debate

Debate already is heated over the issue. Scientist Jane Rissler wants to see long-term study of the environmental and health effects.

"Could adding the new gene add a new toxin? Could it be a new cause of a new allergenic protein? Those are the kinds of questions one would ask about human health," she said.

glassy-winged sharpshooter
The glassy-winged sharpshooter, a common insect in the Southeast, injects grape leaves with Pierce's disease.  

The California wine industry, itself the victim of milder infestations of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, would prefer to see Pierce's disease cured without genetically modified vines. Industry representatives wonder if farmers and consumers will accept so-called GM wine.

The French are known to shun genetically modified products, but researchers there are testing a field of GM grapevines to ward off another disease. French agriculture officials say it will be at least 15 to 25 years before any such grapes make it into a bottle of French wine.

Gray said there would be no genetically modified wine before its time.

"I share concerns of not doing things that are harmful. But the risk assessment on this is very detailed and we are involved in doing that to make sure the plants are safe."

As far as taste, it is way too early to tell.

Burgess has won awards for a dry white wine made from a rare vine that was bred to resist Pierce's disease without genetic engineering.

"People say maybe this is what you should do instead of putting in a foreign gene into a plant," she said. "We have been doing this, but it takes literally years, 30 to 50 years, to produce one variety."

Burgess admits that even if she can beat Pierce's disease, Florida's climate and topography won't challenge California and France for wine superiority. But it could bring the world a wider variety of wines.

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