Science award helps create a great science outcome

13 Oct 2017
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The CSIRO’s Jake Dunlevy has the satisfaction not just of doing some very good science, but of making good use of a much sought-after prize.

When he took out the Viticulture and Oenology section of the 2016 Science and Innovation Awards, Dr Dunlevy used the funding to add a new component to a four-year, Wine Australia-supported project looking at a novel genetic approach to keeping salt out of vines.

>Dr Jake Dunlevy
Dr Jake Dunlevy
Dr Jake Dunlevy

That project has now been completed, and the extra components helped bring it all together.

‘Prior to starting the Science and Innovation Award project, we had tentatively identified a region of the grapevine genome that was associated with sodium exclusion – keeping sodium out of the leaves –  but that was only based on one genetic marker, meaning we had not defined the boundaries of this important region’, he said.

‘But the extra funding the Award offered me allowed us to identify thousands of markers across the whole genome, enabling us to accurately define the locus that is associated with sodium exclusion.’

The project discovered that within this region is a gene encoding a protein that acts like a mini desalination plant – pulling sodium out of the water flow, thus reducing how much makes it to the leaves.

‘We now know that there are two different versions of this gene, a dominant or functional version that is associated with the exclusion of sodium and a recessive or faulty version that is associated with the accumulation of sodium.

‘We think we’ve narrowed it down not only to this gene but to two specific single DNA-based changes that differ between the functional and faulty genes. Knowing this provides us with the perfect genetic marker to target in our breeding program to help select new rootstocks with strong sodium exclusion.’

Dr Jake Dunlevy, CSIRO

The complex, multi-disciplinary project involved researchers from both CSIRO and the University of Adelaide and – believe it or not – frog’s eggs, electrodes and even a little bit of wheat.

These results add another piece to the puzzle of understanding the different genes that control the uptake of both sodium and chloride into vines. The processes are similar, but the genes responsible for chloride exclusion have proven to be more complicated to pin down.

Using genetic markers to select for specific traits saves an enormous amount of time when compared with the traditional field-based approach to screening for traits, such as sodium exclusion. The bigger picture aim is to bring four key traits together.

‘Our group is working on developing genetic markers to predict sodium and chloride exclusion, while another group here at CSIRO is developing genetic markers for phylloxera tolerance and nematode tolerance’, Dr Dunlevy said. ‘Our work really ties into theirs.

‘Our aim is to use these markers to select new rootstock genotypes that contain all four of these key traits to provide the viticultural sector with improved robust rootstocks selected for Australian conditions.’

You can read more about the Science and Innovation awards here.