Even if the visiting Ph.D. student’s efforts at the Sheridan Research and Extension Center succeed, she won’t get a taste of her own success.
Cecilia Limera from Italy is working six months in Sadanand Dhekney’s laboratory trying to learn, and then return to Europe, grape precision breeding techniques Dhekney has crafted through years of research.
Limera is learning how to initiate embryo cultures of different grape varieties via non-sexual means and modify them using existing DNA sequences from the grapes and their “wild” relatives. No new genetic material is added.
She’s learning precision breeding because European grape growers are caught between diseases, pests and regulations limiting chemical applications. Wine industry businesses and government regulators want other ways of continuing their varieties without using GMOs.
Limera rates the value of learning such techniques high.
“I’d say ‘10,’ or even priceless,” she said. “The people specialized in this are really few.”
Dhekney is one of the few, and his expertise may help researchers who face time and consumer preference pressures.
Researchers cannot improve existing grape varieties for pest and disease resistance through conventional plant breeding.
“The problem is most of the varieties are ancient varieties,” said Dhekney, the E.A. Whitney endowed assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Wyoming. “If you try to breed grapes that would be more resistant, you would loose their enological characteristics.”
Grapes from the mixed genomes of the new varieties would be completely different from what made the original grape variety desirable.
Time is also a factor. Precision breeding allows fruit production and evaluation the second year. Breeders might have to wait four to five years for evaluating fruit and wine quality if using conventional plant breeding practices.
“You bypass the juvenile phase completely using precision breeding,” said Dhekney.
Grape precision breeding may be the solution, and no one may know the techniques better than Dhekney, who joined the University of Wyoming and the Sheridan Research and Extension Center in 2012. His expertise draws from around the world.
Limera is in her second year at Universita Politecnica delle Marche in Ancona, Italy. She is the sixth international researcher to work in Dhekney’s laboratory. Others have been from University of Sao Paolo, Brazil; Pontifical Catholic University of Chile; Hebei Agricultural University, China; University of Cairo, Egypt; and Kyrgyz National Academy of sciences, Kyrgyzstan.
Her adviser in Italy had collaborated with Dhekney and suggested she work with him. She also had also looked at other laboratories in France, Spain, and the U.S.
“I realized I was going to learn much more here than in Europe,” she said. “It is much more open here than in Italy, France or Spain. I made the right choice.”
Precision breeding techniques are now more palatable to Europeans because no external or foreign genetic material is added.
“You are improving varieties where the wine characteristics are going to be the same,” said Dhekney. “Shortcomings are improved, but you keep everything that’s desirable and adding new, desirable traits, like disease resistance or frost tolerance.”
Europe is more open to the techniques but scientists are behind the technological curve.
“That’s one of the reasons Cecilia is here,” he said. “To learn those techniques and then go back and apply them in their laboratories, possibly teaching them to students and other researchers. It’s a direct transfer of technology from Sheridan back to Italy.”
Scientists falter at the beginning of the process. Collecting embryos from the plants bewilders many.
“I’m still trying to understand the technique of getting the embryos,” said Limera. “It’s really delicate. You need so much patience to be able to master the techniques of coming up with the embryo.”
Limera won’t taste any success because, “I’m a teetotaler,” she said, and giggled at the contrast of studying grapes for wine. “It’s not important for me to be a wine drinker. My main point is I’m learning the technique to improve grapes and move to the next stage where other people take over, such as winemakers and wine tasters.”