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Sippin on GMO Grapes and Juice

grapesWine is the most complex and versatile drink on the planet. There I said it. From some grapes growing on a vine, producers are able to make a wide range of wines, from complex, heavy Bordeaux blends to crisp, light, acidic pinots winemakers are able to harness a wide range of aromas, flavors, and yes, even textures (try drinking a big, bold red and note the “chewiness” of the tannins on your palette). The versatility of wine is truly astounding, it is not out of place in a palatial manor for a snooty upper-class gathering, or on a rustic table in a farmhouse for a family dinner. Through the simultaneous intermingling of complexity and accessibility, wine has truly lasted the test of time from the earliest wines produced 8000 years ago to vines being transplanted to the new world creating a wine revolution; Coca Cola only wishes it could have achieved this kind of revolution and celebration with “New Coke”. Now science is unlocking an even greater understanding of how the molecules in the grapes contribute to aroma and flavor.

What makes grapes tasty?

The aroma and flavor of wine is at least partially due to terpenes in the grapes which accumulate as the grape ripens. These aromatic molecules are related to hormones such as estrogen and testosterone; different grape varieties, and even the growing conditions of the grapes such as soil composition and the amount of water and sunshine the vines receive contribute to different terpene profiles giving the wide and complex range of wines that we enjoy today.

Terpenes can be purified from other molecules in grapes through use of liquid-liquid extraction (link); the molecules are dissolved in a highly volatile solvent which can then be evaporated to leave the aromatic compounds which can then be further studied. However, often in grapes terpenes are modified by the attachment of additional sugar molecules by specific enzymes in the grape making them less volatile and unable to contribute to the aroma and flavor of wine. Based on the research conducted at the Technische Universitat Munchen there is a better understanding of how these volatile molecules contribute to the aroma and flavor of wine and gives the potential to modify grape varieties to produce more terpenes, to have less active enzyme, and produce a wider range and more intense aromatic profiles. In the future we may well be sipping wine from test tubes instead of wine glasses; however, I can’t help but wonder if this is a fragrant violation of the tradition and heraldry of wine making and enjoyment (but that is just because I am a wine snob!).

Golden rice, a GMO, could provide vitamin A precursors to people in southeast asia where vitamin A deficiency is a common concern leading to blindness and often death.

Should we grow GMO Grapes?

There is, and likely always will be, heated debate about genetically modified organisms (link). Is it ethically responsible for us to start playing with the fabric of life itself? Is it socially responsible to encourage the spread of these technologies and with that give the power of controlling production to a few large companies? Should we condemn these technologies largely because we don’t understand them? Should GMOs be subjected to additional, prohibitive regulations that places further strain on the producers that wish to use these products?

Science impacts and affects our lives every day. Sometimes this is apparent, we would not have cars, computers, and cell phones without science, however, without science we wouldn’t have running water, modern medicine, or even the humble light bulb. Science largely endeavors to create a better human experience, to create a net benefit for the human race by making life easier, more enjoyable, and healthier. At its core science seeks to understand and unravel the secrets of life and our universe, outwardly science seeks to push the boundaries of what is possible, to take the human race where it has never been before. There will always be opposition to new technologies, cautiousness is always necessary. As scientists the onus falls on us to educate the public, to shout louder than the heretics, and ensure that our message is received clearly and without confusion. As scientists it is our responsibility to ensure the social responsibility of our actions and push the boundaries in socially responsible ways. For now, I sip my wine and marvel at how far science has come and where it will take us next.

Let us know your thoughts about GMOs: Do you think there is a place for GMOs in today’s society? Have we pushed too far too quickly?