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Genetically speaking

Published:  18 January, 2007

Late last year, the Australian wine industry was abuzz with news that a genetically modified (GM) wine yeast had been approved for use in the United States. The yeast - a modified Saccharomyces cerevisiae with the glamorous name of ML01 - contains genes from another yeast and a malolactic bacterium, and performs both alcoholic and malolactic fermentations simultaneously. (Interestingly, the yeast was developed by a French company, Springer Oenologie, which rather deflates the argument that New World wine countries are the only bad guys churning out industrial techno-wines. But I digress)

Just a few days later, GM was in the news again, when a decade-long Australian government research project was scrapped after it was discovered that modified peas had caused inflammation in the lungs of the test mice.

To anyone who's pro-GM, both events were good news: on the one hand, the United States' progressive attitude to GM foods has extended to the field of wine, while on the other, the abandonment of the research project well before any of the GM peas made their way into the food chain shows the effectiveness of Australia's strict regulations and controls of genetic engineering.

To the anti-GM crowd, the same two events are, of course, their worst fears come true: the side effects on the mice show that we still know so little about the technology we're dabbling in - which makes the commercial release of a GM yeast doubly worrying.

From an Australian perspective, any discussion of a GM wine yeast is, at this stage, rather academic. Not only does Australia have a much more conservative and rigorous approach to approving and labelling GMOs than the United States does, but the wine industry here has adopted an even more cautious position: that no genetically modified organisms be used in the production of Australian wine'.

That doesn't mean, however, that the industry disapproves totally of GMOs. Far from it, in fact. Like many people across the world, the industry is actively involved in genetic research.

Dr Paul Chambers is the principal molecular biologist for the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). He published

a response to the release of the Springer yeast in the US recently, in which he stated:

It would seem from balancing some of the more obvious risks and benefits associated with the use of ML01, that having access to this yeast might be a good thing for Australian winemakers.' However, he went on to support the industry's self-imposed ban - for now.

Chambers is working on a long-term project at the AWRI, developing a yeast strain that produces lower alcohol without sacrificing flavour or mouthfeel - perhaps by getting the yeast to convert sugar into glycerol as well as alcohol. Alongside the genetic research, Chambers is also conducting traditional yeast-breeding programmes. The hope is', he says, that the knowledge we get from genetic engineering (GE) research will help develop the breeding process: the more we know about what we're looking for, the better we can apply selection pressures.'

David Bruer, winemaker at Langhorne Creek vineyard Temple Bruer, says he would love to be able to use a yeast that produces less alcohol.

He is particularly worried about the social impact of Australian wines with ever-increasing levels of alcohol.

We think any wine over 14% is irresponsible,' he says.

His stand is particularly surprising because Bruer is one of the country's highest-profile and most outspoken organic winemakers. We've started putting some of our wines through RO [reverse osmosis, a technique for reducing the concentration of water or alcohol in wine] and bringing 15.3% wines back to 14,' he says. (This is a modern interpretation of an old - now illegal - Australian tradition of picking grapes super-ripe then knocking back the alcohol level by adding water to the ferment.) But he'd much rather have the option of not creating so much alcohol in the first place - even if it means using GM yeast.

The opposition many people have to GE per se is absurd,' says Bruer. I would never support crossing, say, a fish with a tree, because that would never happen in nature. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. But finding a method of speeding up a process that does happen in nature is fine.'

Still, speeding things up in GE or selective-breeding terms is still a long, arduous process. Even if our research is ultimately successful,' says Dr Chambers, you won't see anything appear for the industry to use for at least five years.'

By which time, the industry may have modified its blanket opposition to GMOs.