Success Stories - More sustainable, healthier wine? We'll drink to that!

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The EU-funded project YeSViTE is using cutting edge biotechnology techniques to stimulate innovation in the world of wine. The project investigated the biodiversity of naturally occurring yeasts to enable healthier and more sustainable wine production. Using yeasts can reduce pests, cut pesticide use and their resulting impacts on the environment.

YeSVitE has also found that certain yeast strains are key ingredients in managing alcohol levels and the amount of sulphites (SO2) added to many wines to prevent oxidisation and maintain freshness.

Like other sectors of agriculture, viniculture is facing increasing global competition and a growing market demand for healthier, high-quality wines produced in a sustainable way.

YesVitE is evaluating yeast biodiversity using a portfolio of wine biotechnology techniques to reveal molecular linkages between yeast species and strains of interest to winemaking. The project has established a microbial collection of wine-associated yeasts; developed novel genetic tools for their taxonomic analysis, investigated evolutionary trends in yeasts and produced modified yeasts for the new wine design.

Selected wild yeasts have also been studied for precision oenology (wine studies) and to investigate the natural bio-protection of grapevines. As a Marie Curie International Research Staff Exchange Scheme strengthen research partnerships and networking activities among the consortia partners that will ensure the project results are effectively shared and spread.

“The biodiversity of yeast represents an untapped resource in fermented foods in general,” says project coordinator Ileana Vigentini of the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy. “Many of the current challenges faced by the world of wine can be addressed through better understanding in this area including production quality, making ‘healthier’ wines, and establishing the concept of sustainability in winemaking.”

In particular, the project’s identification of fermentative yeasts isolated from ancient (Italy, Georgia, Slovenia and Spain) and relatively new (Canada, and South Africa) vine-growing areas are allowing the selection of yeast strains that could be useful to evaluate interactions between their genetic makeup and wine characteristics and the complex interplay of wine-related organisms that leads to the final wine product in the bottle.

CRISPR taste

The genetic engineering of industrial yeasts is currently undergoing a major revolution due to the development of new techniques that can manipulate and edit genes such as the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated (Cas) immune system. CRISPR/Cas technology allows scientist to knockout or tune the expression of specific targeted genes and metabolic pathways.

“CRISPR/Cas9 is gaining significant attention because of its biotechnological applications and potential to boost innovation,” says Vigentini. “The wine industry can gain an advantage through this technique through increased understanding of the contribution of the various yeast species to wine features such as wine quality and safety, including aroma and off-flavour compounds, ethanol and glycerol production, sulphur dioxide resistance, and toxic compounds.”

As an example the YeSVitE project is using the CRISPR/Cas9 approach for gene editing to generate new yeast strains with a reduced production of urea and ethyl-carbamate – a potentially toxic compound that is regulated in food by some countries.

“The development of actions that prevent or reduce ethyl-carbamate content in wine represents an important strategic goal for the wine industry,” says Vigentini.

Although genetic modification is a key research tool for the project, YeSViTE aims to eventually produce a range of non-GMO yeast strains for selection and assessment by participating wineries.

With the project ending in December 2017, project members are hoping to continue this fruitful collaboration through a future Marie Curie Innovative Training Networks (ITN) project.

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This project has received funding from the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 745828