May 14, 2018 - The research on the genetic diversity of grapevines in Montenegro carried out in the last five years puts Montenegro at the shoulders of the world's most famous vineyards and places it on the world map of wine regions as a specific, autochthonous area with unique wines," said the professor of Genomics Molecular Biology at Western Ontario University in Canada and visiting professor at La Riohi University in Spain, Miodrag Grbić, who takes part in the research team. Grbić likes to spend his holidays in Donja Lastva in Tivat, where he owns a home.
The project "Determination of DNA of autochthonous grape varieties in Montenegro" is being carried out for the first time and represents one of the most critical projects in the history of Montenegrin viticulture.
On what basis have you selected Montenegro to study grape varieties?
"Our cooperation started ten years ago with Dr. Vesna Maraš from '13 July', who came to the incredible support of the director of 'Plantaže 13 Jul', Verice Maraš. This initiative resulted in visiting plantations in La Rioja, and one of the exciting elements in this cooperation is the similarity between La Rioja and Montenegro. La Rioja is the smallest Spanish province known for producing the best wine in Spain. Their production is based on native autochthonous grape varieties and is one of the fantastic examples of sustainable agriculture. Also, 20% of the GDP in that republic comes exclusively from agriculture, and they have brought it to a level where it is the basis of tourism, and especially wine."
What does this project imply; what's the complete procedure?
"We are doing complex analysis of grape diversity in Montenegro, and this has never been done, especially with the latest genomic and genetic techniques. We visited all the wine regions of Montenegro, from Crmnica to Kuče, Boka Bay and Upper Morinj, and we took samples of vineyards that are over 300 years old. By taking DNA, these lines are marked with GPS, and their development follows. The DNA is sent to Spain for an analysis of special markers to determine which species of plants survived phylloxera and managed to keep it. For some of them we know that they are Vranac or Krstač, and for others, we have no data, so the background of this project is finding potential new autochthonous grape varieties, increasing the repertoire of producing autochthonous wines and creating Montenegro as an interesting wine destination."
As you walked through the vineyards in Montenegro, what did you discover?
"We had the opportunity to see the wine areas that were unknown to us, and for the first time, they were explored. It's unbelievable to see a vine-starred over 100 years old who has survived the phylloxera to succeed and give birth. Phylloxera is one of the largest pests of vines in Europe, and it is in Europe to harvest the grape vines entirely and allow vine production. Now the graft is cast on the base of a wild American vine that is resistant to phylloxera. The other thing we have found is the diversity of different vine varieties, as well as difference among some varieties. Let's say, in Vranac we have many varieties of Vranac - Vranac from Crmnice is different from Vranac, which is produced in other vineyards, Krstač variations are fantastic, and we know that Krstač is one of the famous descendants of Zinfandel, one of the most famous American wines.
One of the great results we have come up with, something that amazed Spanish experts, is the population of wild grape vines in Montenegro. This is something that is so diverse and often here, and wild grapevines are a prey to the tiny grapevines. In the many countries visited by these researchers from Armenia and Georgia, which are, in fact, the beginning of cultivating grapevines across Europe, South America and other places, such diverse grapevines were not seen anywhere. That's why we have to go into an elaborate research to see what links the wild grapevines from Montenegro with a tiny grapevine. Bearing in mind such diversity, it is imperative to protect this wild grapevine as a plant characteristic of Montenegro, and at the state level as one of the most important plants, and see if it has the potential to be proclaimed as the emblem of Montenegro."
In your opinion, how much does Montenegro handle its indigenous varieties?
“I have to say that this project is supported and stimulated by the Ministry of Science and the Ministry of Agriculture. A contract for cooperation between La Rioja and Montenegro was signed, which is the basis for this project. How much has been taken into account earlier, it is debatable, but now it is one of the most important maps of Montenegro and what it can offer to the European Union. Increasing the European repertoire of grape production by autochthonous Montenegrin grapes has an incredible significance in the field of agriculture and wine-growing."
How significant is this project for Montenegro?
"In the field of winemaking, this is an epochal project that should raise Montenegrin winemaking at one of the highest technological levels. We make a complete cross-section of the grape variety, we use the latest DNA analysis, and the idea of sequencing the Vranac genus is one of the first genomic projects for plants from Montenegro. Since Montenegro is part of the southern Balkans, which was not covered by glaciers in the previous glaciation, there is an incredible diversity of plant and animal species that are completely unexplored. This is a treasure trove where our analysis focuses on grapevines. However, we should not forget medicinal plants that have incredible potential. Their research related to pharmacological experiments can create a very good foundation for the development of the pharmacological industry, the cosmetic industry, and the perfume industry. This potential needs to be exploited and can only be valued using the latest techniques and, in particular, genome sequencing techniques and understanding why and how certain plants have genetic properties. It is essential that Montenegro is on its way to the European Union and should use this moment to apply for funding from the European Union. Namely, samples were taken from old chicks aged between 50 and 300 years including a vineyard sample from St. Vasilije Ostroški Monastery, which originated in 1672.
More than 500 chicks have been analyzed, which is the most extensive research of this kind done with us," said Grbić.
The results, as he said, have surpassed many of his expectations.
"When we started the project in 2013, knowing the geological history of them I was expecting that we would undoubtedly find many unknown vine varieties. I thought if we saw ten to 15 it would be fantastic. To our great surprise, we have found 63 genotypes thus far unknown to science, meaning 63 varieties of grapevines.
For one country, which is 150 kilometers in diameter, this is unbelievable," emphasized Grbić. He adds that this was just the beginning because the genomic techniques allow establishing genetic connectivity and the pedigree of these varieties.
"It was found that the most common variety was Kratošija of wine varieties and Razaklija of ston varieties. These two varieties are the basis of the Montenegrin pedigree grape variety because they stepped in with other varieties to make new ones," explained Grbić. According to him, Kratošija is the father of Vranac, and his mother is a little known Montenegrin variety called Duljenga.
Not connected to the project in Montenegro, one of your last discoveries is the kind of spider that produces silk, can you tell us more?
"Our research is related to genomics, genomic sequencing technology, which was certainly very useful in the sequencing project of the Vranac genome. This research we are working on in partnership with the Spanish is the result of ongoing research and our project of sequencing the red spider genome, because it is one of the major pests in agriculture, eating more than 1000 species of different plants, including vines. When we sequenced the genome of this pest with the idea of developing alternative methods of controlling and protecting plants against this pest, we have seen that this organism produces something that has potentials in biomedicine and biotechnology, which is silk. The grains in principle do not produce silk, and this Kopriva grain produces a fine silk that has been found to have nano dimensions and a very natural elasticity and hardness that can serve as a potential bio nanomaterial that can be used in medicine. Now we're doing experiments to determine if this silk is biocompatible with the human body."
What does it mean?
"When we enter the organism with any foreign body, if the immune system recognizes it as a foreign body, it triggers an immune response and comes to the rejection of that foreign body. If this silk is biocompatible, it has a repertoire of options that can be used, for example, to serve as a drug dosing microcapsule, to form the wound healing hydrogels as a kind of wound suture, so that the silk is used as a base for tissue and cell regeneration and skin transplants. At the moment, it is all science fiction because it requires a lot of funding and a long series of experiments that will certainly last for years."
After the project in Montenegro, what are your next projects?
"We are continuing with the exploration of spider genomics, and the project we are focused on is to understand how this harmful spider can be fed with over 1,000 different plants including Oleander that is used as a poison - and this spider completely disassembles it and grows on it. We started sequencing genes of similar spider species that feed only on several plants. One species was introduced into Europe from South America and is an invasive species that spreads across Europe, called the Tetranychus evanes. Finally, we found an endemic species in Spain that is fed on only one plant. By sequencing all the genes and genes of these species, and when compared with each other, we can see what happens to a species that is fed only to one host and to a species that is fed to more than a thousand different plants. This should result in practical things where we can see what is the 'Achilles heel' in this very damaging species and develop methods for their suppression that should replace pesticides and be environmentally acceptable. The role and development of agriculture in the future will definitely be an ecologically modern approach to sustainable agriculture where high technology will be used for this type of research."
Thanks to the collaboration with the Institute of Wine and Wine from the Spanish area of La Rioja, Montenegro will get the first national base of autochthonous grape varieties, which will contribute to the promotion of the country as a significant wine destination, and also to the economic development.