Can grapevine DNA change over time?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Can grapevine DNA change over time? Does a Syrah vine in California have the same DNA as the vines in France that it descended from?

—Sepehr, Auckland, New Zealand

Dear Sepehr,

For this question I checked in with an actual Ph.D.: Dr. Carole Meredith, professor emerita at the University of California at Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology (she also has a Napa wine brand, Lagier Meredith).

“The DNA in all living organisms does undergo tiny changes over time,” Meredith explains, “and grapevines are no exception. But it’s not because the vines have been taken to a new place. The occurrence of very small changes (called mutations) in the genetic code is a completely natural, normal, and mostly random process that occurs in all living cells.”

She adds that when cuttings or buds are taken from a grapevine in order to make more plants, there might be a mutation that originated in a cell in the progenitor vine that makes the new vine very slightly different than the progenitor vine. “In most cases, the difference is not even noticeable but, rarely, it may be something that a grower actually prefers, such as a more intense aroma or improved tolerance to a fungal disease,” she says. “In that case, the new vine may be preferentially used as a source of cuttings for subsequent plantings. This is how wine grape clones arise.”

However, Meredith says that these clones still have almost entirely identical DNA to that of the original vine. “Thus, all the millions of Syrah vines growing around the world have essentially a single genetic profile, as revealed by DNA fingerprinting, and are readily distinguishable from all the vines of any other variety.”

—Dr. Vinny

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