Genome British Columbia

Genome British Columbia

September 09, 2009 09:00 ET

Genome British Columbia: Genomics Sciences Guarantee Better Results in the Art of Winemaking

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUBMIA--(Marketwire - Sept. 9, 2009) - While the art of fine winemaking is a beautiful thing, winemakers are increasingly turning to the power of science to give them the tools they need to ensure a high quality pour each and every time.

Thanks to innovative new research funded by Genome Canada and Genome British Columbia, help is on the way.

The research will harness the power of genomics to unlock fundamental gene functions within grapevine and yeast cells, ultimately helping growers and winemakers to improve wine production techniques and enjoy valuable cost savings in an industry that has seen $4.2 billion in sales in Canada alone.

Dr. Steven Lund of UBC is one of the lead investigators on the $3.4 million project, entitled "Grape and Wine Genomics".

His work will focus on using genomics to identify protein biomarkers that will assist viticulturists to monitor how the vine and berries respond to natural and human-made environmental changes.

"Essentially, we are trying to put more advanced tools into the hands of producers," says Lund, who equates current knowledge of the berry to a bit of a black box.

Currently, growers monitor what is happening in the berry like measuring pH and sugar levels to estimate harvest date, but not until late in the growth process. But there are currently no means to monitor the impact that management techniques such as fertilization, irrigation, and leaf thinning have on berry ripening and flavour development earlier in each season.

"All of these techniques affect flavour and amino acid composition, but growers have no idea how or why," says Lund. "That's where genomics comes in."

The ultimate goal? "A practical application - a handheld device, which will help growers monitor proteins in the vine or berry at any time during any given season to determine when specific management practices should be applied and, perhaps most importantly, to what degree," says Lund.

As such, Lund is collaborating with Dr. Paul Yager, Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, whose team has created a portable device for detecting blood-borne pathogens. Yager will work with Lund to adapt his technology for use in the vineyard, directly on the vines.

But while high quality grapes are essential for a good glass, they are but one piece of the puzzle. The rest of the magic occurs during the winemaking process itself.

Dr. Hennie van Vuuren, the project's other lead investigator, is the Director of the UBC Wine Research Centre. His team, which includes scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Harvard University in the US, is studying the function of the Fermentation Stress Response genes in wine yeasts, which are added to the grape juice during the winemaking process and are essential for converting sugars into alcohol and flavour compounds.

Van Vuuren and his team are using advanced technologies to see how yeast cells adapt to the many stress conditions they encounter, such as osmotic pressure, nutrient limitation, and increasing ethanol.

"We have recently discovered that yeast cells adapt to wine making stress conditions by switching on 62 genes of unknown function," says van Vuuren. "Our objective is to discover function for each of these 62 genes, and in so doing, help winemakers to control their outcomes a little better."

Cost savings is another important issue. Winemakers waste a lot of money due to spoilage caused by yeasts that are essentially faulty and don't allow them to achieve a fully dry wine. "Residual sugars are acceptable in varieties such as Riesling, but in a Cabernet Sauvignon for example, they will ruin the batch," says van Vuuren, who also notes that the residual sugars can leave the wine susceptible to microbial spoilage.

The Grape and Wine Genomics project will also probe social science questions raised by the research.

Dr. David Laycock is part of a team of five political scientists from Simon Fraser University, who are studying the social, political and regulatory contexts for scientific innovation as they relate to the wine industry.

Their work will help the Canadian industry and regulatory bodies better understand public concerns regarding the use of genomics technologies in the production of wine and the general food industry, and will help guide the responsible introduction of genomic technologies over the long term.

"Canadian industry can learn lessons from other wine producing countries and their attitudes towards scientific innovation," says Dr. Laycock. "The best science and government funding in the world can still run up against a brick wall if there isn't a receptive public environment and an intelligent regulatory framework."

"We are proud to support this innovative and valuable research, which positions BC and Canada as global leaders in genomic wine research," says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. "The knowledge that this team will generate will benefit wine producing countries around the world."

For more information about Genome BC visit

For more information about Genome Canada visit


This project will be announced at the 10th Anniversary celebration of the UBC Wine Research Centre. Media tours and interview opportunities with project leaders Dr. Hennie van Vuuren and Dr. Steven Lund will take place as follows:

Date/Time: September 9th, 2009, 10:00 a.m. (Media tour and interview opportunities)

Place: UBC Wine Research Centre - Food Nutrition & Health Building, 2205 East Mall, Room 220.

Telephone interviews and photos available on request.


Grape and Wine Genomics


Wine brings pleasure and is also becoming an important Canadian agricultural product. The Canadian wine industry, worth more than $1.3 billion in domestic retail sales and exports, began to thrive on the world stage in the 1990s following a switch from the native Labrusca grapes to the European Vinifera varietals. Last year, British Columbia produced an estimated 15 million litres of wine and sales of BC VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) wines were more than $166 million in 2008/09.

Wine making traditionally has been regarded as more of an art than a science, subject to the vagaries of nature and insulated from the advantages of scientific study. This is changing rapidly. The application of new genomics and related techniques now make it possible to uncover fundamental gene functions in wine grapes and yeasts. These methods are already leading to the development of protein biomarkers that can assist viticulturists to monitor how the vine and berries respond to natural and human-made environmental changes along each season, ultimately allowing greater consistency in high value wine grape production.

Yeast has been studied as a model organism for more than 40 years and was the first eukaryote whose genome was fully sequenced. The functions of 5,000 of the 6,000 genes in S. cerevisiae have been elucidated. During wine making, yeasts are exposed to many stress conditions such as osmotic pressure, nutrient limitation and ethanol. The project has recently discovered that yeast cells adapt to wine making stress conditions by switching on 62 genes of unknown functions which we named Fermentation Stress Response genes. Our objective is to discover function for each of these 62 genes.

The Grape and Wine Genomics project will apply genomic and genetic techniques to the study of important wine varietals. Specifically, the project will do the following:

- Clarify how nitrogen fertilization affects hormone regulation of metabolic pathways important for berry ripening, chemical composition and wine quality

- Determine the relationship between gene expression patterns and variation in amino acid composition at maturity in ripening berries

- Develop biomarkers for vineyard monitoring of vine water stress

- Use a systems biology approach to identify functions for each of the genes involved in the fermentation stress response and the regulation of molecular sugar and amino-acid transporters during wine fermentation

- Deliver knowledge that leads to understanding the complex scientific, policy, industry and public issues involved in the application of genomics to the wine industry

New technology in the wine industry brings new questions about where science and society interact. First, are Canadian wine producers willing to adopt new technology for both berry growing and wine production, and how would their adoption of new genomic technology compare with their competitors in other countries? Second, are members of the public willing to purchase wine products that apply certain genomics technologies? If so, what determines these preferences? For wine making, neither of these questions has straightforward answers because of traditional artisanal methods of production, concerns for purity and subjective notions of quality in pricing and consumption.

The ethical and social research group will approach these questions on two fronts. First they will identify and highlight areas of similarity between the BC and Canadian wine industry and any patterns of successful introduction of new technologies found in nine other comparator countries. This will help identify and possibly correct barriers to innovation present in the BC and Canadian berry growing and winemaking sectors. Some of this information will come from looking at wine producers' attitudes towards adopting new genomics-based methods in Canada and comparing them to other key wine-producing countries.

These studies will help the Canadian industry and regulatory bodies better understand public concerns regarding the use of genomics technologies in the production of wine and the general food industry more generally. In the long run, this knowledge will be important in guiding appropriate and responsible ways of introducing genomic technological innovations to the wine industry.


Dr. Hennie van Vuuren

Hennie van Vuuren has been Professor and Eagles Chair in Food Biotechnology in the department of Food, Nutrition & Health at the University of British Columbia since 1999. He is also the Founding Director of the Wine Research Centre and Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems. Prior to coming to UBC, Dr. van Vuuren was Director of the Institute for Biotechnology and Professor of Microbiology at the University of Stellenbosch in his native South Africa and spent two years as a senior NSERC research fellow at the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University. He received his PhD in Belgium in 1978 studying the role of micro-organisms in beer production and has continued over the years to study the role of yeast in wine production. Since 1984, Dr. van Vuuren has mentored an impressive 21 MSc students and 11 PhD students and received numerous research grants funded by both industry and government institutions. He is a regular invited speaker at various international and national symposia on his research field and is a member of several UBC and non-UBC scholarly committees including the American Society for Enology & Viticulture and the BC Wine Institute Research and Development Committee. Dr. van Vuuren has served as associate editor of the Journal Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin since 1997 and has served as a reviewer for several other viticulture and enology-related journals. He was also instrumental in developing the DNA Micro Array Core and the Analytical Core Facilities at the Wine Research Centre.

For over 16 years, Dr. van Vuuren's research interests have concentrated on the regulation of malate and nitrogen metabolism in wine yeasts and the construction of novel wine yeast strains to gain insight into the metabolic adaptation of wine yeast during the process of winemaking. His current research uses previous findings and the more recently utilized genomic, proteomic and metabolomic molecular techniques to answer fundamental questions regarding wine yeast adaptations. Strains of yeast utilized in wine production have developed complex regulatory adaptations to cope with unique stresses experienced during the fermentation of grape musts. In particular, Dr. van Vuuren's work continues to characterize phenotypic traits of previously identified null mutant yeast strains believed to be important in the fermentation process. His research is focused on developing genetic modifications of yeast that can improve the process and quality of wine production. He holds five patents on wine yeast strains.

Dr. Steven T. Lund

Dr. Steven Lund is Assistant Professor of Viticulture/Plant Omics at The University of British Columbia's Wine Research Centre in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems and is an associate faculty member in the UBC Michael Smith Laboratories and the UBC Department of Botany. Originally hailing from the United States, Dr. Lund received his PhD in Plant Biological Sciences from the University of Minnesota in 1995 and then pursued his post-doctoral studies at the University of Florida before moving to an industry position in New Zealand in 1998. He has been at UBC since 2002. He has 20 years of experience in the field of plant molecular biology including publications in leading peer-reviewed journals and speaking invitations to international conferences. He has been Project Leader on three large-scale Genome Canada and Genome BC projects and also holds NSERC funding, providing stimulating training opportunities for four graduate students and several post-docs, research technicians, and undergraduate students. Dr. Lund is active in the international grapevine research community, including Steering Committee membership representing Canada for the International Grape Genome Program.

Dr. Lund's lab studies regulatory and metabolic networks of gene expression in soft fruits for viticulture and human health applications. His lab is currently working to better understand the interaction of the grapevine genome, the vineyard environment, and viticultural practices in order to develop molecular tools to assist growers in decision making in the vineyard each season. His lab is also using comparative biochemical genomics to advance our understanding of the antioxidant capacities imparted by vitamin C and anthocyanin flavonoids with the goal of developing molecular tools for marker assisted breeding in raspberry.


Project Title: Grape and Wine Genomics

Project Value: $ 3,440,481

Primary Funding: Genome Canada, Genome British Columbia

Co-Funding: Mission Hill Winery, Phyterra Yeast Inc., BC Wine Grape Council, UBC VP Research Office, UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of Guelph, and Simon Fraser University

Research Team

Project Leaders:

Dr. Hennie J.J. van Vuuren, Wine Research Centre, UBC

Dr. Steven T. Lund, Wine Research Centre, UBC


Dr. Joerg Bohlmann, Michael Smith Labs, UBC

Dr. Christopher Owens, USDA-ARS

Dr. George van der Merwe, U-Guelph

Dr. David Laycock, Political Science, SFU

Dr. Michael Howlett, Political Science, SFU

Dr. Vivien Measday, Wine Research Centre, UBC


Dr. Susan Murch, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UBCO

Dr. Cedric Saucier, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UBCO

Dr. Paul Yager, Bioengineering, University of Washington

Dr. Steven Weldon, Political Science, SFU

Dr. Anil Hira, Political Science, SFU

Dr. Sue Abrams, NRC-CNRC Plant Biotechnology Institute

Dr. Christoph Borchers, UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre

Project Manager:

Samantha Turner, Wine Research Centre, UBC

Involved Institutions

University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, BC

Simon Fraser University (SFU), Burnaby, BC

University of Guelph (U-Guelph), Guelph ON

US Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS), Geneva, NY

University of Washington (UW), Seattle, WA

UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre, Victoria, BC

University of British Columbia (UBCO), Kelowna, BC

NRC-CNRC Plant Biotechnology Institute, Saskatoon, SK

Contact Information