How Gene Editing is Changing the Future of Wine—and Making it Less Likely to Give You a Hangover

Gene editing techniques like CRISPR are upending thousands of years of wine-making tradition.
Gene editing techniques like CRISPR are upending thousands of years of wine-making tradition.
Massimo Santi/iStock via Getty Images

In the 19th century, a microscopic pest almost brought the entire French wine industry to a halt. Phylloxera, a tiny louse that feeds on plant roots, made its way from North America to France in the 1850s, spreading from one vineyard to another until it had infected the whole country. What became known as the Great Wine Blight killed 915,000 acres of vineyards, damaged 620,000 acres, and cost the French economy 10 billion francs (almost $108 billion today).

In 1870, a solution emerged—though French vintners weren't happy with it. Charles Valentine Riley, an entomologist from Missouri, showed that by grafting phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks onto European grape vines, the disease could successfully be prevented from spreading. But European cultivators felt that grafting would destroy the purity of the wines, impacting their taste and flavor.

Winemaking is an industry steeped in tradition. While enthusiasts typically consider this a good thing, the phylloxera crisis is a historic example of how its inability to adapt almost led to the industry’s complete collapse. Long-standing ideals for wine purity and taste persist today, leaving vineyards vulnerable to new pests—but now, some scientists are applying 21st-century gene-editing techniques to this old problem.

Wine's Ancient Origins, Today

According to a study conducted in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wine grapes were first domesticated around 8000 years ago. Since then, the 10 or so most popular grape variants have undergone little to no evolution.

Evolution occurs in the form of change to an organism’s DNA. The change is a result of genetic mutations and interbreeding that occur over several thousand years. While most cultivable crops, like wheat for example, have undergone countless evolutionary changes since being first domesticated in the earliest years of human history, the most popular wine grapes have remained mostly the same from a genetic perspective.

“There are 20,000 varieties listed in the Vitis International Variety Catalogue, so there is a lot of genetic diversity,” Timothy Martinson, a viticulture specialist for the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, tells Mental Floss. But, he adds, European wine grape variants such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon are all descendants of the same species, Vitis vinifera. They are also very closely related to each other genetically. This makes them susceptible to a long list of pathogens, especially those originating in North America.

The Problem with Hybrids

Pinot noir grapes are among the least genetically diverse.photohomepage/iStock via Getty Images

The easiest solution to this problem is to add disease resistance to these varieties by crossbreeding with more resistant varieties from America, but even that presents its own challenges. “Grape breeding is much more time-consuming and expensive than breeding annual crops like corn or wheat,” Martinson explains. “From seed to mature vine takes three years, and a lot more field space and care than an annual crop.”

Moreover, European cultivators haven’t generally been amenable to the idea of interbreeding, and there is a reason behind that too. In the 1870s, before grafting took root as the primary solution to the phylloxera crisis, a lot of winemakers had already started crossing European vines with North American ones. The efforts worked, and eventually, France had a little less than a million acres of land dedicated to these hybrid wine grapes.

But there was a problem. In the absence of advanced technology, grape breeders were forced to rely on an expensive trial-and-error method that yielded poor-quality produce. The cultivators soon realized that the hybrid wines weren’t nearly as good as the purebred ones. Eventually, the French government introduced legislation to strategically discourage the cultivation of hybrid wines and winemakers went back to growing only purebred varieties through grafting. Since then, French-American hybrids have been looked down upon by vintners and wine enthusiasts alike.

Because the crops took so long to mature, it was already too late by the time they realized the wines were below par. That all changes with genetic sequencing.

Sequencing For Success

By taking out a small leaf sample from any grape vine, plant biologists can now figure out the exact sequence of genes contained within its cells’ DNA, which allows them to develop genetic maps and chart out the various pathways for breeding.

“Before inexpensive DNA sequencing,” Martinson says, “breeders were basically using trial and error ... now with DNA markers, breeders can test seedlings and discard the ones that don’t have the appropriate DNA markers early in the process. This makes selection more efficient and fills the ‘pipeline’ with better material.”

Martinson is part of the VitisGen Project, a collaborative initiative aimed at developing better quality wine through genetic sequencing and breeding. The project’s current focus is disease resistance, especially resistance to a widespread fungal disease called powdery mildew. The idea is to reduce the need for pesticides by helping the vines develop an internal resistance to the fungi.

Martinson and his colleagues accomplish this by identifying new genetic markers—DNA snippets that can be linked to specific characteristics, such as resistance to a certain disease—within the plant’s cells.

The progress has been good, but there is one hurdle—wine fans may not be familiar with the new varietal names. When two different wine types are interbred, the resulting plant needs to be called something different. “Consumers want Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon—and new varieties, regardless of how high quality the resulting wines are, will be named something different," Martinson says. For example, UC Davis has released five new varieties, including a red named paseante noir. "Even if it is widely planted and marketed, it will be a long time before consumers go to a wine store and ask for it by name."

Cutting-Edge Wine with CRISPR

Old wines are getting a genetic facelift.porpeller/iStock via Getty Images

There’s a possible solution to that problem, too—gene-editing. The process has been described as a find-and-replace feature similar to that in word-processing software. CRISPR, the most promising gene-editing technology currently available, involves injecting an organism, be it a human or a grapevine, with a chemical containing millions of tiny particles. Each particle consists of a guide molecule to point it in the right direction, an enzyme to edit and remove the target DNA, and a snippet of healthy DNA to replace the DNA that was just removed. 

Introducing a new gene into an existing grape merely changes its traits while the variety of wine remains the same. This process can greatly assist marketing efforts in an industry where sales are mainly dependent on variety, even more so than quality. Given the industry’s devotion to tradition, it can also make the idea of genetic modification an easier sell to vintners and cultivators.

Gene editing technology has already shown a lot of promise in a number of isolated studies involving wine grapes. In the most recent example, Rutgers University researchers successfully used the CRISPR/Cas9 technique in 2019 to develop downy mildew resistance in Chardonnay. They isolated three genes that invite downy mildew outbreaks in wine grapes and successfully edited them to create a disease-resistant version of the crop.

Earlier efforts have also borne fruit. In 2015, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically modify the yeast used to ferment wine. By doing so, they increased the amount of resveratrol, a component found in wine, that was produced during the fermentation process. The wine didn’t even cause a hangover.

The wine industry's interest in breeding techniques and gene editing stems from its over-reliance on pesticides, which has become a safety concern for consumers. Martinson has written about a case in Bordeaux from 2014 in which 23 students became seriously ill after inhaling pesticides being sprayed in a nearby vineyard.

Since then, governments have progressively loosened legislation to encourage vintners to look for more innovative methods to curb disease resistance instead of relying on pesticides. Martinson says he’s optimistic: The general attitude towards genetic modification seems to be opening up, and people are finally catching on to the consequences of a winemaking tradition so frozen in time.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

9 Rockin' Facts About Earthquakes

Earthquakes don't cause giant cartoonish chasms to open up, but they can tear up the landscape like this.
Earthquakes don't cause giant cartoonish chasms to open up, but they can tear up the landscape like this.
martb/iStock via Getty Images

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), roughly 500,000 detectable earthquakes occur each year—meaning at least a few will have hit by the time you’ve finished reading this article. Of that gigantic number, however, only about 100,000 are intense enough for humans to feel the effects, and just 100 or so of those actually cause any destruction. In other words, the Earth quakes a lot, whether we realize it or not. So why do earthquakes happen, when do they happen, and can you avoid them by moving to the moon? Those questions and more, addressed below.

1. You can blame earthquakes on Earth’s inner core.

We've got a lot on our plate(s).Muriel Gottrop, USGS, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Understanding earthquakes requires a brief journey to the center of the Earth, which is a solid ball of iron and other metals that can reach temperatures up to 10,800°F. The extreme heat from that inner core emanates through its surrounding layers—first through the outer core, mostly made of liquid iron and nickel, and then on to the mostly solid rock layer called the mantle. This heating process causes constant movement in the mantle, which makes the Earth’s crust above it move, too.

The crust comprises a patchwork of giant, individual rock slabs called tectonic plates. Sometimes when two plates are sliding against each other, the friction between their jagged edges causes them to temporarily get stuck. The pressure builds until it can finally overcome the friction, and the plates finally go their separate ways. At that point, all the pent-up energy is released in ripples—or seismic waves—that literally shake the land sitting on the Earth’s crust.

2. Scientists can’t predict earthquakes, but they can occasionally forecast them.

Unfortunately, there’s no fancy device that warns us whenever an earthquake is coming. But while scientists can’t predict exactly when or where an earthquake will occur, they can occasionally forecast the probability that one will hit a certain area sometime soon (and if that sounds a little vague, it’s because it is). For one, we know where the tectonic plates border each other, and that’s where the high-magnitude earthquakes occur. The Ring of Fire, for example, is an area along the rim of the Pacific Ocean where approximately 81 percent of the world’s biggest earthquakes happen. We also know that especially large earthquakes are sometimes preceded by tiny quakes called foreshocks (though they can’t be identified as foreshocks unless a larger earthquake actually hits—if that doesn’t happen, they’re just regular, small earthquakes). When small quakes near a plate boundary coincide with other geological changes, it can indicate that a big earthquake is coming.

In February 1975, for instance, the Chinese city of Haicheng experienced possible foreshocks after months of shifts in land elevation and water levels, so officials ordered its million residents to evacuate immediately. The next day, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the region. Though there were 2000 casualties, it’s estimated that 150,000 could have been killed or injured if nobody had fled.

3. There’s a very small chance that “The Big One” will occur in the next year.

You can actually see parts of the San Andreas Fault along the Carrizo Plain in California's San Luis Obispo County.Ikluft, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

That said, successful forecasts like Haicheng’s are rare, and scientists spend a lot of time monitoring known fault lines—the borders between plates—to try to determine how much pressure is building up and when it might cause a problem. It’s not an exact science.

One fluctuating forecast is for “The Big One,” a huge earthquake that’s expected to hit the San Andreas Fault Zone, an 800-mile network of fault lines that runs from Northern to Southern California, sometime in the future. Right now, the USGS forecasts a 31 percent chance that a 7.5-magnitude quake will hit Los Angeles in the next 30 years and a 20 percent chance that such a quake will occur in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

The likelihood of “The Big One” is partially dependent on other earthquakes in that fault zone. After two back-to-back quakes hit Ridgecrest, California, in 2019, seismologists observed pressure changes in the surrounding fault lines, and a study published in July 2020 suggested that the chances of “The Big One” happening in the next year may have increased to 1.15 percent—three to five times likelier than previously thought.

4. Underwater earthquakes can cause tsunamis.

Because so much of Earth’s surface is covered in water, many earthquakes don’t touch land at all, but that doesn’t mean they don’t affect people. When plates shift on the ocean floor, the energy displaces the water above them, causing it to rise dramatically. Then, gravity pulls that water back down, which makes the surrounding water form a massive wave, or tsunami.

Earthquakes can also indirectly cause tsunamis by altering the landscape. On July 9, 1958, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Lituya Bay in northeastern Alaska, causing a rockslide on a bordering cliff. As an estimated 40 million cubic yards of rock rushed into the bay, the force created an estimated 1720-foot wave—the largest tsunami of all time.

5. Alaska also holds the record for the largest earthquake in the U.S.

The boundary between the North American and Pacific plates runs through and around Alaska, which means that Alaskans are no strangers to earthquakes; according to the Alaska Earthquake Center, one is detected in the state about every 15 minutes.

On March 28, 1964, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake—the largest ever recorded in the U.S.—hit Prince William Sound, a body of water that borders the Gulf of Alaska. Not only did the initial force level buildings and homes, but it also generated a series of landslides, tsunamis, and other earthquakes (called aftershocks) that affected communities as far as Oregon and California.

Scientists discovered that the earthquake had happened because the Pacific plate wasn’t just rubbing up against the North American plate—it was actually slipping under it. The area where these plates converge is known as a “subduction zone.” Occasionally, the pressure builds up and causes a major movement, or megathrust, when it finally releases. Though experts still couldn't predict these movements, studying the damage did help Alaskans shore up their defenses for future earthquakes. Officials passed better building codes, and the town of Valdez, which sat on unstable land, was actually moved four miles east.

6. The world's largest recorded earthquake happened in Chile.

The 1960 earthquake near Valdivia, Chile, was larger than Alaska’s earthquake four years later, but the conditions that caused it were similar. The Nazca plate, which runs beneath the Pacific Ocean along South America’s west coast, is slipping under the South American plate (which is beneath the continent itself). On May 22, 1960, there was a huge shift along a 560- to 620-mile length of the Nazca plate, causing a catastrophic, record-breaking earthquake with a magnitude of 9.5. Just like in Alaska, this quake set off a series of tsunamis and aftershocks that decimated whole towns. It’s difficult to quantify the damage, but it’s estimated that at least 1655 people died and another 2 million people ended up homeless.

7. An earthquake can leave genetic scars on a species.

Approximately 800 years ago, an earthquake near Dunedin, New Zealand, thrust a section of its coast upward and wiped out the bull kelp that had lived there. New bull kelp soon started settling in the area, and their descendants today look indistinguishable from the neighboring kelp that never got displaced. In July 2020, scientists published a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B showing that the two kelp populations actually have different genetic makeup. Their findings suggest that earthquakes—and similar geological catastrophes—can have an extremely long-lasting impact on the biodiversity of the affected area.

8. The Richter scale for measuring earthquakes isn’t always accurate.

In 1935, Charles Richter devised a scale for determining an earthquake’s magnitude by measuring the size of its seismic waves with a seismograph. Basically, a seismograph is an instrument with a mass attached to a fixed base; the base moves during an earthquake, while the mass does not. The movement is converted into an electrical voltage, which is recorded by a moving needle onto paper in a wave pattern. The varying height of the waves is called amplitude. The higher the amplitude, the higher an earthquake scores on the Richter scale (which goes from one to 10). Since the scale is logarithmic, each point is 10 times greater than the one below it.

But seismic wave amplitude in one specific area is a limited metric, especially for larger earthquakes that affect pretty vast regions. So, in the 1970s, seismologists Hiroo Kanamori and Thomas C. Hanks came up with a measurement called a “moment,” found by multiplying three variables: distance the plates moved; length of the fault line between them; and rigidity of the rock itself. That moment is essentially how much energy is released in an earthquake, which is a more comprehensive metric than just how much the ground shakes.

To put it in terms the general public could grasp, they created the moment magnitude scale, where the moment is converted to a number value between one and 10. The values increase logarithmically, just like they do on the Richter scale, so it’s not uncommon for newscasters or journalists to mistakenly mention the Richter scale when they’re actually talking about the moment magnitude scale.

9. The moon has earthquakes, too.

Aptly called moonquakes, these seismic shifts can happen for a few reasons (that we know of so far). Deep moonquakes are usually because Earth’s gravitational pull is manipulating the moon’s interior structures. A surface-level quake, on the other hand, is sometimes the result of a meteoroid impact or the stark temperature change between night and day. But in May 2019, scientists suggested a possible fourth reason for shallower shakes: The moon is shrinking as its core cools, and this process is causing shifts in its crust. As the crust shifts, the scarps—or ridges—that we see on the moon’s surface may shift, too.