A vineyard overseen by Cornell AgriTech at its campus in Geneva, New York.

Justin James Muir / Courtesy of Cornell University

A vineyard overseen by Cornell AgriTech at its campus in Geneva, New York.

March 22, 2019

$68.9M Facility Will Study Grape Quality, Resistance to Diseases

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After waiting for more than 12 years, Cornell’s Grape Genetic Research Unit will finally receive the funding it needs to build a new facility at the University’s AgriTech campus in Geneva, New York.

Prof. Gan-Yuan Zhong, research leader of the unit and adjunct associate professor of horticulture at Cornell, called the development “very exciting” in an interview with The Sun.

Partially due to significant lobbying from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the unit secured $68.9 million in funding from the United States Department of Agriculture earlier this year, which Zhong said will be used to construct a new building, greenhouses and other projects.

According to Zhong, the unit works on “critical issues” in the grape and wine industry, including fruit quality, resistance to diseases like powdery mildew and stress tolerance.

“The mission of the unit is to provide genetic knowledge and solutions for improving grapevines to support the grape and the wine industry in the U.S,” Zhong said.

Grapes are the highest-valued fruit crop in the United States at over $6.4 billion.

Zhong said he does not know how long it will take for the building to be constructed, but hoped that it will be finished “as soon as possible.”

The unit collaborates with researchers at Cornell, such as Tim Martinson, senior extension associate in the horticultural sciences department. The unit is currently working with Martinson to study the cluster architecture of vignoles, a wine grape. Zhong said that in vignoles, the cluster of grapes is “very compact,” which makes the grapes prone to a rot disease.

In an attempt to solve this problem, USDA scientists induced mutations in a large number of individual grape plants, and then the unit screened the plants to find the ones where the cluster was not compact, according to Martinson. The plants, however, are not classified as genetically modified organisms.

“We think we have something that has a looser cluster that’s less prone to rot and still … gets less disease,” he said.

Jason Londo, a research geneticist at the unit, said the new building will give the researchers a space that is “actually functionally designed to be lab space and office space.” Until last year, the unit’s molecular labs were located in the renovated attic of a building, which he said had “bad” air and temperature conditions and was noisy. It also did not have an elevator.

“Science and lab work is really finicky work … If you’re not in a good space, everything is harder, the quality is lower,” he said. “You just don’t get as much bang for your buck.”

Last year, they relocated to refurbished labs in another building, which was a “huge step up,” Londo said.

The new facility that will be built on the AgriTech campus will allow the scientists to dedicate laboratories to specific tasks and use their equipment more efficiently, as well as to acquire new equipment as technologies advance.

In addition, Londo said that the new facility will allow the Grape Genetic Research Unit to attract scientists both from the U.S. and from other countries.

“I think having a new building will make attracting new talent … monumentally easier,” he said. “And students too. Having new space and new options for collaboration will hopefully really strengthen the students that we can attract to AgriTech.”

Martinson said the modern laboratories will keep the unit at “the cutting edge” of grape breeding and genetics.

“I think that’s going to become more important as we start to see … some of the effects of climate change,” he added. “We’re kind of stuck on the old varieties and varietal names as being the pinnacle of the wine world, but I think that attitude is probably going to shift in a couple generations.”