Italian researchers this week announced the completion of the genome sequence of the pinot noir grape, something that I find sort of interesting.
When you talk to oenophiles about the qualities of different wines, of course the variety of grape matters, but what really seems to be important to have an extra special vintage is the particulars (and perhaps particulates) of the soil its grown in, the amount of rainfall, the way any irrigation water is handled, the degree and intensity of the sunlight, etc. (Things that in general have little to do with the plants genetic make-up.)
So just like in the never-ending humanities debate, this really comes down to a question of nature vs nurture. That is, can understanding the genetic make-up of a plant help us understand how it grows and how we can influence it?
Probably, but humans have been influencing the genetic composition of animals and plants for thousands of years – its called selective breeding. Sweeter corn, meatier pigs, colors of tulips, dog-breed characteristics – we’ve been doing it a long time and we'd gotten pretty good at it long before anyone had a clue that anything HAD a genome.
I think what spooks some folks is that now people (and by “people” I clearly mean mad-scientist types) have the chance to produce changes in a single generation that may have taken hundreds of years to select properly (if ever). The wine-genome advocates suggest that genetic modification (GM) of grapes could produce better and more consistent flavor. Also, it might allow for more disease and infestation resistant crops, which would cut down on the amount of pesticides required and allow grapes to be grown in regions where they are not currently viable.
So, here’s the can of worms opened: Would you drink a GM-wine?