Grant to fast-track virus-free grapevine certification pleases wine industry

Grapevine Red Blotch Virus spread driving need for clean vines

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The certification of virus-free grapevine plants is getting fast-tracked thanks to $6.2 million in funding from Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP).

“This funding will allow grape growers to rapidly improve the health of their vineyards and boost the domestic capacity in the supply of much needed virus-free grapevine plant material in Canada,” says Sudarsana Poojari, senior scientist at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI).

Why it matters: Virus-free starter crops are critical for successful yearly planting, but are hard to develop without larger industry effort.

Poojari is leading a team of scientists advancing clean plant extraction sequencing diagnostics, known as CLEANSED, which is an initiative funded by Brock University’s CCOVI, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Canadian Grapevine Certification Network (CGCN-RCCV), the University of Victoria, Genome Canada, Genome BC, Genome Quebec, Ontario Genomics, Agriculture and Agri Food Canada (AAFC), Compute Canada, Conseil des vins du Québec and Illumina.

CLEANSED is a is a high-throughput sequencing technology that allows growers to test for up to 30 viruses on approximately two-dozen grapevine planting composites in one go with a rapid return on results.

The CLEANSED financial boost is important to the Canadian grape and wine industry because virus infections cost it an estimated $23 million in losses each year.

Grapevine Red Blotch Virus (GBRV), which affects red cultivars such as a variety of Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec, as well as white cultivars such as Chardonnay and Riesling, has been detected in grapevine collections, nursery stock and established vineyards across North America.

The virus has spread rapidly across Canadian and specifically, Ontario vineyards. GRBV can cost $32,000 to $53,000 per hectare for vineyards with a 25-year lifespan and no control measures.

This type of impact set the development of certified virus-free grapevines and pest control management programs as a top priority for sustainability in the grape and wine sector.

“The solid science of the project will help our grape growers to quickly access healthy plants of diverse new varieties, resulting in increased production,” said Jaspinder Komal, of the CFIA. “Such approaches will be able to facilitate the adaptation of Canadian and world agriculture to climate change.”

Bill Schenck, vice-chair of CGCN-RCCV, said the timing could not be more perfect for this project as growers across the country continue to deal with viruses that affect crop quality and vine health.

“In order to put a vine through the system right now, it takes seven years to form an infected vine until it’s gone through a complete clean-up program,” said Schenck.

Schenck said if a grower has to pull up vines and replant it takes three years before the vines bear fruit. Only then will the viruses reveal themselves. If the vine block is infected, the grower starts again and has to wait another three years before they’re able to harvest which affects profitability.

This test would replace more than 30 tests currently being used to diagnose grapevine diseases and allow quicker release of certified virus-free material. Hans Buchler, CGCN-RCCV chair, said a regional approach is needed to eradicate diseases such as Red Blotch. Large scale testing will be needed.

“High throughput sequencing will make it economically feasible to test all plants used for propagation for all viruses of concern,” said Buchler. “And will greatly contribute to the availability of CGCN-RCCV certified virus-free grapevines to growers across Canada.” Buchler is optimistic CLEANSED technology will contribute to the reduction, and the eventual elimination of most virus infections in Canadian vineyards.

Research results

Research published in the Virology Journal in Dec. 2018 studied six major red cultivars and five major white grape cultivars in 33 vineyards across the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County. The study tested 657 composite leaf samples representing 3,285 vines collected from 137 vine blocks, and tested for 17 viruses including five leafroll-associated viruses, including grapevine red blotch virus, grapevine Pinot Gris virus. The results show infections with multiple viruses were common with 95.6 per cent of the samples being infected with at least one virus, with 67 per cent showing infection from two to four of the viruses.

“The major grape cultivars all tested positive for these major viruses,” said the study. “The results also suggested that the use of infected planting material may have been one of the chief factors responsible for the recent outbreaks of viral diseases across the province.”

Schenck said although a lot of the work is being done at CCOVI it’s also being done in other provinces and the collaboration between all these players was an integral part of their successful funding application.

“Currently there is no clean source of virus-free vines in Canada and most growers have turned to the (United) States to purchase the vines that they’re planting,” he said. “The beauty of this project is we brought in not only the universities in B.C. and Ontario but Quebec is involved and Nova Scotia. We’ve brought together all the key players in the grape industry.”

Buchler said the CGCN is amending its certification standards to allow vines tested and produced within the CLEANSED initiative to be available for commercial sale through the CGCN-RCCV Certification Program nursery participants.

About the author

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Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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