Australia advances development of salt-tolerant vines

A team of Australian scientists has reported on a major breakthrough in the development of salt-resistant vines – which could lead to the first rootstock cultivated specifically for Australian vines – as part of the industry’s efforts to ensure its future sustainability.

The research, funded by Wine Australia, has seen scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Adelaide and CSIRO Agriculture and Food work to find a means of cultivating vines that are resistant to the impact of salt in some soils.

While low levels of salt can improve the flavour of wine, in excess it can lead to unpalatable tastes, reduce fruit yield and damage the long-term health of grapevines.

This week, it was confirmed that the team had identified genes expressed in grapevine roots that limit the amount of sodium – a key component of salt – that reaches berries and leaves, paving the way for the development of a salt-resistant rootstock tailored specifically to conditions found in Australia.

“By comparing the DNA of different grapevines we identified a specific gene that is associated with sodium exclusion from shoots,” says co-first author Dr Jake Dunlevy from CSIRO.

“This discovery has allowed us to develop genetic markers that are being used to breed more salt-tolerant grapevine rootstocks, allowing new genotypes to be screened at the seedling stage rather than through lengthy and expensive field-based vineyard trials.”

Currently, issues caused by salinity in soils have been estimated to cost Australia’s broader agriculture, food and wine sectors in excess of $1 billion each year.

“Berries that contain too much sodium may be unsuitable for wine production and this can lead to vineyards remaining unpicked, resulting in financial losses for vineyard owners,” added Dr Sam Henderson, co-first author of the study, from the University of Adelaide.

“We set out to determine why some grapevines accumulate salt and others don’t, and found a specific mutation in a sodium transport protein found in grapevine roots, which prevents it from working effectively.”

The research was led by Dr Mandy Walker, CSIRO, and Professor Matthew Gilliham, University of Adelaide and published this week in the journal New Phytologist.

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