Ripening synchronization research conducted to understand berry uniformity at harvest

Dr. Laurent Deluc, Assistant Professor
Dr. Satyanaryana Gouthu, Postdoctoral Research Associate

Grape berry development involves natural biological programs that occur in succession during the growing season. These biological programs are what direct cell division, growth, and fruit ripening. Environmental factors such as light, temperature, water, and nutrient status of the vine affect the development of berries in this process. Within the grapevine, many hormones interact in response to environmental stimuli and coordinate the processes of fruit ripening. However, all berries within a cluster do not go through the ripening process at the same rate. At any given time, some berries will be more developed than others. This phenomenon of uneven ripening is called “asynchrony,” and the variability among berries is most noticeable during mid-véraison.

To understand this phenomenon of asynchrony, we conducted research in Pinot Noir across four years (2010 to 2013). Berries were classified into four groups based on their level of development at mid-véraison as measured by color and softness. These classes include green-hard, green-soft, pink-soft, and red-soft. These berries were at different ripeness states and represented the transition of berries during véraison. Those green berries that were lagging behind in development had transitioned through pink and then red stages at a later time.

To determine ripening development, we monitored individual berries as they advanced from the various stages to the red-soft stage on intervals of 6, 10, and 13 days for pink-soft, green-soft, and green-hard berry classes, respectively. We found that once the lagging berry classes reach their corresponding red-soft stage, they develop at a faster rate during the two weeks following mid-véraison than their riper counterparts. This enhancement in the ripening rate of lagging berries resulted in reduced variability within a cluster at harvest with respect to sugar and pigments (color). This mechanism is known as “ripening synchronicity,” and it involves changes in gene expression and hormones involved in ripening, suggesting that a coordinated mechanism of control is occurring at the genetic level (Gouthu et al., in progress).

Vineyard management practices such as cluster-zone leaf removal, cluster thinning, and deficit irrigation have been used for decades to improve fruit quality and achieve more uniform ripening. Several genomic studies focused on understanding the changes in gene expression of berries within a cluster due to selective defoliation (Pastore et al. 2013), cluster thinning (Pastore et al. 2011) and water deficit (Deluc et al. 2009). However, no study has investigated the naturally occurring changes in gene expression associated with the reduction of uneven ripening without modifying viticulture practices in the vineyard. We believe that uniform ripening is potentially important for grape growers and winemakers, and understanding the plasticity of grape berry ripening could be beneficial in adapting cultivars to a specific growing region, vineyard management practice, or wine style. From an ecological point of view, the grapevine benefits from having a more coordinated ripening of the berries to entice birds and other animals to feed and disperse seeds. As a result, cool climate cultivars may have adapted to complete this process more quickly to survive. Short growing seasons and advanced phenological stages have been reported in several regions across the world (Fraga et al., 2013). The ability to ripen more quickly is an interesting genetic trait to research as we seek better methods for grape production and face climate change.

Identifying developmental and environmental factors that control synchronized ripening through genomic research will increase our knowledge of ripening processes within grape berries. This information may allow us to combine applied and basic research methods to determine if there are viticulture practices that can be used to improve cluster ripening uniformity and wine quality. For example, since we know hormones play a critical role in the ripening process, we may be able to conduct more detailed research on the use of plant hormone sprays during véraison to achieve more uniform berry composition at harvest. Also, we can study the genomic and physiological response of berry ripening synchronicity with traditional vineyard management practices (canopy management, regulated deficit irrigation, and fertilization). These types of partnered applied and basic studies have not been conducted to date. Future short-term research projects to be conducted at OSU will focus on determining specific contributions of ripening-related hormones in the control of this mechanism. We hope to determine field applications that prevent or eliminate uneven ripening in the vineyards. Basic research will focus on the identification of the genes responsible for this regulatory mechanism within such applied projects. Finally, these findings may be helpful in developing large-scale genetic studies to determine the genetic makeup of cultivars such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel that exhibit persisting levels of ripeness heterogeneity at harvest.

Literature Cited

Pastore, C., S., Zenoni, GB., Tornielli, G., Allegro, S., Dal Santo, G. Valentini, C., Intrieri, M., Pezzotti, and I. Filipetti. 2011. Increasing the source/sink ratio in Vitis vinifera (cv Sangiovese) induces extensive transcriptome reprogramming and modifies berry ripening. BMC Genomics 12:631

Pastore, C., S., Zenoni, M., Fasoli, M., Pezzotti, GB., Tornielli, and I., Filipetti. 2013. Selective defoliation affects plant growth, fruit transcriptional ripening program and flavonoid metabolism in grapevine. BMC Plant Biology 13:30

Deluc, L.G., D.R. Quilici, A. Decendit, J. Grimplet, M.D. Wheatley, K.A. Schlauch, J.M. Mérillon , J.C. Cushman, and G.R. Cramer. 2009. Water deficit alters differentially metabolic pathways affecting important flavor and quality traits in grape berries of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. BMC Genomics 10: 212.

Fraga, H., A.C. Malheiro, J. Moutinho-Pereira, and J.A. Santos. 2013. An overview of climate change impacts on European viticulture. Food Energy Secur. 1: 94-110.

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