Earliest Evidence of French Winemaking Discovered
For years, opponents have argued that genetically engineered plants wreak havoc with human health and nature, and accuse plant biotech companies, such as Monsanto, of putting profits before people. On the other hand, agricultural biotech proponents argue that engineered crops enable farmers to grow at a time of global food shortages, insidious pests, weeds and extreme weather. "It's a complicated issue," says James E. McWilliams, author of American Pests and professor of history at Texas State University. Plant virologist Roger N. Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Center in St. Louis, Missouri, thinks that environmentalists and biotech experts can emerge from the cloud of controversy, find common ground, and move toward green goals together. So, whether transgenic crops make you think "yum-yum" or "no ma'am," McWilliams and Beachy share what's cooking:
1. Biofortified Soya Beans
What advantage did these few plants gain by evolving the ability to catch animals instead of just capturing the sun's energy? The elaborate structures necessary for killing bugs -- pools of nectar, bright colors, unusual shapes and digestive enzymes -- must be costly for the plant to make. Not so, says a new study, published in the American Journal of Botany, that examined Asian pitcher plants (pictured here), Venus flytraps, sundews and others.
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images
2. Edible Cotton Seeds
By nature, cotton seeds are inedible because they contain gossypol, a component that keeps bugs away. In 2006, Texas A&M University and Cotton Inc. collaborated on research to produce genetically engineered seeds without the inedible part while keeping it in the plant for protection. The researchers made nutty-tasting meal from the seeds that could be used for flour, but the discovery has many regulatory and logistic hurdles to clear before it could be a reality in cotton-growing areas.
Food or energy? With gas prices soaring, biofuel advocates find themselves going toe-to-toe with farmers. Jatropha is an inedible plant whose seeds produce a liquid like palm oil that could be used for biofuel. Earlier this year the plant caused political tension in India, where tribal communities accused the government of destroying their native crops to plant jatropha for fuel needs. Plant breeding and genetic engineering will result in high-yielding jatropha that will increase overall production and potentially reduce the hectares needed; Roger Beachy says jatropha and other oil-producing, non-food plants also have the potential to produce bioplastics that can degrade in landfills.
4. Golden Rice
More than 120 million children globally don't get enough vitamin A and as a result are at risk for blindness. Back in the 1990s, a scientific team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology by Ingo Potrykis and collaborators at Syngenta Company discovered that adding several key genes from flowering plants to rice could dramatically increase the amount of beta carotene, a molecular that human beings can convert to Vitamin A. Even though the research ran into intellectual property rights problems, a public-private partnership between the inventors and agrichemical company Syngenta allowed the research to continue. Golden rice was successfully field-tested in Louisiana four years ago, but the inventors blame bureaucratic measures for slowing its adoption abroad.
International Rice Research Institute
5. Flood-Resistant Rice
Husband and wife team Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak bridge the biotech-environmental divide in their book Tomorrow's Table, arguing that genetic-engineering and organic farming can be blended. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at University of California-Davis, has been working with David Mackill of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines on genetically-modified rice that can withstand flooding. If field trials are successful, the rice could be available as early as next year.
6. Sugar Beets
For something that's so sweet, the debate over this crop has been rather bitter. Last year the New York Times chronicled sugar beet farmers' woes as they battled weeds to harvest the beets that provide around half the nation's sugar. They eagerly awaited Monsanto's Roundup Ready beets to produce higher yields and pay less for herbicide and workers to weed the fields. Environmentalists, meanwhile, raised alarm over the problem of weeds that are resistant to Roundup herbicide, cross-pollination with organic crops, and a group of advocates sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the matter. The beets became available to farmers earlier this year.
Admittedly, this isn't a crop, but it will likely be cultivated like one. The London Times recently reported that a biotechnology company in San Francisco called LS9 had genetically modified industrial yeast to munch on plant sugars and excrete crude oil. No, really. The company plans to feed the yeast agricultural waste, although they haven't quite scaled up the operation up beyond the beaker level. And there's no word yet on whether they will be able to engineer some bugs to eat up all the carbon dioxide from combustion.
This starchy, potato-like root is an essential plant for millions of people around the world, especially in Africa. This staple lacks a range of vitamins that are crucial to development and its cultivation can be adversely affected by drought. BioCassava Plus is a group of scientists led by Ohio State University Professor Richard Sayre and financed with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Currently they're working on a virus-resistant cassava that contains a day's worth of vitamins, proteins, and minerals. They plan to field test it in two African countries within the next two years.
Plant pathologist Dennis Gonsalves has been involved in papaya research for 30 years. It's not a stretch to say that papayas might have been wiped out entirely had it not been for his work. A virus was rapidly eating up the orange-yellow tropical fruit when Gonsalves, then at Cornell University, and fellow researchers engineered the SunUp papaya strain. Earlier this year, the University of Hawaii-Menoa led a group of 85 scientists to decode the SunUp papaya's genome -- the first fruit species sequenced. They'd like to use that information to strengthen the fruit's resistance to pests so farmers can cut back on the chemicals.
10. Castor Beans
"Plants make so many things," Roger Beachy says. He points to the castor plant, whose beans make versatile oil that can be used in a wide range of products, from jet engine lubricant to shampoo. The castor bean also contains a deadly toxin called ricin that has no antidote, which explains why the crop isn't very popular to grow. Two researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture became the first in the world to genetically engineer castor plants, blocking ricin production as well as intense allergens that the plants make. In addition, the USDA researchers would like to genetically engineer the plant to produce castor oil epoxy, which could replace toxic solvents in paints.
An ancient limestone platform dating back to 425 B.C is the oldest wine press ever discovered on French soil.
The press is the first evidence of winemaking in what is now modern-day France, according to new research published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The evidence suggests inhabitants of the region of Etruria got the ancient residents of France hooked. (Etruria covered parts of modern-day Tuscany, Latium and Umbria in Italy.)
"Now we know that the ancient Etruscans lured the Gauls into the Mediterranean wine culture by importing wine into southern France," study researcher Patrick McGovern, who directs the Bimolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, said in a statement. "This built up a demand that could only be met by establishing a native industry." In Photos: Amazing Ruins of the Ancient World
The spread of wine
Humans first domesticated the Eurasian grapevine some 9,000 years ago in the Near East, perhaps in what is now Turkey or Iran. Gradually, the intoxicating beverage spread across the Mediterranean Sea, conveyed by Phoenicians and Greeks. By 800 B.C., the Phoenicians were trading wine with the Etruscans, storing it in large jars called amphoras.
Shipwrecks from around 600 B.C. are filled with these Etruscan amphoras, suggesting that residents of the area that is now Italy were by then exporting their own wine. In the coastal town of Lattara, near modern-day Lattes, France, a merchant storage complex full of these amphoras has been found, dating back to the town's heyday of 525 B.C. to 475 B.C.
McGovern and his colleagues analyzed three of these amphoras to find out if they really contained wine. They also analyzed an odd limestone discovery shaped like a rounded platform with a spout, thought to be a press of some sort. Whether the locals used the press to smash olives or grapes was unknown.
The researchers followed careful standards for the artifacts they analyzed: Amphoras had to be excavated undisturbed and sealed, with their bases intact and available for analysis. They also had to be unwashed and had to contain possible residue.
An ancient limestone pressing platform from Lattara, France, dates back to at least 400 B.C. and was used to crush grapes for wine. Michael Py, copyright I Unite de Fouilles et de Recherches Archeologiques de Lattes.
Only 13 jars met those standards. The researchers chose three representative amphoras for molecular testing, and also tested two later amphoras that almost certainly contained wine for comparison.
The analysis revealed tartaric acid, which is found naturally in grapes and is a major component of wine. Other wine-related acids — including succinic acid, malic acid and citric acid — were all present.
This ancient wine may not have had much in common with what might be found on a tasting trip to Napa or Sonoma, Calif., today. The researchers also found traces of pine resin, likely used for flavor and as a preservative. And the wine contained compounds from herbs, likely rosemary, basil and thyme.
Today, one Greek wine called retsina still uses pine resin for flavor, even though glass bottles have removed the need for it as a preservative.
"It's hard for a palate accustomed to Cabernet and Chardonnay to get accustomed to a wine that tastes like, well, turpentine," according to wineloverspage.com, which also describes retsina wine as "neither subtle nor delicate."
The beginnings of French wine
Of course, ancient wines weren't just for recreational quaffing; they were also used as medicinal mixtures, McGovern said. More importantly, the limestone press contained traces of tartaric acid, revealing that the residents of Lattara not only imported wine, but also made it. The press was in use by about 425 B.C. to 400 B.C., making it the first known evidence of winemaking in what is now France.
The older amphoras, combined with the ancient press, suggest that residents of the area that is now southern France first imported wine and then started cultivation, probably with vines imported from Etruria. Shipwrecks from that region have been found with vine seedlings inside, according to the researchers.
"France's rise to world prominence in the wine culture has been well documented, especially since the 12th century, when the Cistercian monks determined by trial-and-error that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were the best cultivars to grow in Burgundy," McGovern said. "What we haven't had is clear chemical evidence, combined with botanical and archaeological data, showing how wine was introduced into France and initiated a native industry."
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