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Unveiling the origin and evolution of wine through genome research

Scientists provided insight into the grapevine's evolution and domestication


Grapevine is among the world's oldest crops and have a significant impact on European civilizations. However, the origins and spread of the grapevine have been hotly debated among researchers. In a new genome project, scientists have analysed thousands of vine genomes from China to Western Europe, providing insight into the grapevine's evolution and domestication.

Researchers from the Chinese Yunnan Agricultural University led the extensive genome project, collecting thousands of vine genomes along the Silk Road. They were able to determine the grapevine's  evolution from the wild vine to today's cultivar. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany provided a critical contribution to the project by providing a collection of wild vines.

Wine was one of the oldest products traded all around the world. It pushed the exchange of cultures, ideas, and religions. At the end of the Ice Age, grapevine originated from the European wild vine, of which only a few relic populations have survived to date.

One of these populations can be found on the Ketsch peninsula on the Rhine river between Karlsruhe and Mannheim. So far, the traces of when and where exactly wild vines were domesticated, of whether grapes for wine production and table grapes have the same origin, and how thousands of vines developed have been hidden in the mist of the prehistoric era. Still, it is clear that grapevine survived partly drastic climate changes and gathered a number of genes from Asia as a result of early human migration movements. "For some years now, it has been known that today's Silk Road once was a wine road.

The Chinese symbol for alcohol is derived from Georgian wine jugs, so-called Qevri," explains Professor Peter Nick of KIT's Joseph-Gottlieb Kölreuter Institut for Plant Sciences (JKIP). Nick, who had already cooperated with Chinese researchers in a previous project to determine grapevine genomes, suggested to collect grapevines along the previous Silk Road and to analyze their genomes.

The project revealed that the grapevine survived drastic climate changes and gathered genes from Asia due to early human migration movements. Today's Silk Road was once a wine road, and the Chinese symbol for alcohol is derived from Georgian wine jugs. The project's findings indicated that winegrowing originated in the South Caucasus earlier than 11,000 B.C., making wine older than bread.

Winegrowing technology quickly spread across the Mediterranean, leading to the production of a large variety of vines through cross-breeding with local wild vines. About 7,000 years ago, large-berry species developed into table vines in the Middle East. Domestication of the grapevine was accompanied by climatic changes, such as the end of the Ice Age and the warm and moist Atlantic climate period between 8000 and 4000 B.C.

The genome project's results revealed that medieval vines in Southwest Germany contain genes of vines from Azerbaijan and Central Asia. The project has produced the most detailed model of grapevine evolution and domestication to date, providing valuable insight into the history of one of the world's oldest crops.