University of Florida researcher Dennis Gray has boosted a grape plant's ability to fend off fungal diseases by enlisting protective genes already found in grapes.
The technique is known as cisgenic engineering or precision breeding.
In a recent study, Gray dramatically increased the fungal disease resistance of Thompson seedless grapes by inserting a gene from the winegrape variety chardonnay.
Because the technique only uses grape genes, it isn't transgenic, says Gray, a professor of developmental biology based at the Mid-Florida Research & Education Center in Apopka.
Transgenics involve inserting genetic material from an unrelated plant species into another. Examples include insect-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant corn, cotton and soybeans.
"We're still trying to get a read from USDA," he says about whether the fungal-resistant grapes need to be regulated as other transgenic crops are.
"There's no DNA involved that doesn't come from a grape," Gray says.
Conventional breeding involves trading genetic material between two plants through crosses.
But the results are unpredictable, and you can wind up with plants that have the desired trait as well as several undesirable characteristics. You can even wind up with plants without the desired trait.
Since cisgenic engineering involves only sharing a small amount of genetic material with a known trait, the results are much more precise, Gray says. Hence the name "precision breeding."
The technique also offers the potential to greatly reduce the amount of fungicides used to control diseases as well as providing consumers with fruit that lasts longer before starting to decay.