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Researcher Seeks UW Scientist’s Grape Expertise to Help Italy’s Dilemma

June 2, 2017
woman sitting beside large microscope
Doctoral student Cecilia Limera, from Italy, is learning grape precision breeding techniques developed by Sadanand Dhekney at the University of Wyoming’s Sheridan Research and Extension Center. (UW Photo)

Even if the visiting doctoral student’s efforts at the University of Wyoming’s 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. Dhekney is the E.A. Whitney endowed assistant professor in the UW Department of Plant Sciences.

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 is 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 (genetically modified organisms).

Limera rates the value of learning such techniques high.

“I’d say ‘10,’ or even priceless,” she says. “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,” Dhekney says. “If you try to breed grapes that would be more resistant, you would lose 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,” Dhekney says.

Grape precision breeding may be the solution, and no one may know the techniques better than Dhekney, who joined UW and the Sheridan Research and Extension Center in 2012. His expertise draws researchers 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.

Limera’s 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 says. “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,” Dhekney says. “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 -- to learn those techniques and then go back and apply them in their laboratories, possibly teaching them to students and other researchers,” Dhekney says. “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,” Limera says. “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 says, and smiles 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.”

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