Based on their proximity to large Eastern urban areas, Southern growers of muscadine grapes could probably capitalize on fresh-market demand if not for the variety’s seediness and short shelf life.
But Dennis Gray, a professor of developmental biology at the University of Florida’s Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, is leading a research team that hopes to address those constraints with seedless, disease-resistant muscadine varieties.
“We think if we could get something that would sit on shelves and especially be seedless, people outside of the Southeast would be seeing something else they hadn’t seen,” he says.
Jeanne Burgess, vice president of wine making at Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards in Clermont, has followed Gray’s research for years.
Although the winery grows muscadines purely for juice and wine, she says his work—if successful—would be a boon to the entire Florida grape industry.
“We think it would really benefit the fresh fruit portion of this industry in the Southeast and would pump it up,” Burgess says.
Southerners are familiar with muscadines and understand that they have seeds. But she says most consumers elsewhere are turned off by muscadine’s seediness.
“It would open up new markets,” she says of a seedless muscadine. [People elsewhere] like grapes, and the flavor of the muscadine is very engaging—it’s almost like a tropical fruit for people who are not familiar with it.”
A multi-state effort
Gray’s work is being funded in part by a five-year, $2.2 million specialty crop grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National institute of Food and Agriculture.
Other members of the team include researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of Tennessee, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Poplarville, Miss., and the University of the Virgin Islands.
Gray and his team are using what he calls precision breeding—or cisgenics—to transfer genes targeted for their desirable traits from other grape varieties into muscadines.
Conventional breeding involves trading genetic material between two plants through crosses. But the results are unpredictable, Gray says.
Since cisgenics involves only sharing a small amount of genetic material with a known trait, the results are much more precise, Gray says.
And because his work only involves sharing genetic material among grape varieties, Gray says he’s hopeful that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency will not regulate the resulting grapevines.