Scientists Determine the Origins of One the World’s Oldest Crops


Grapevine, one of the world’s oldest crops, has a complex history of evolution and domestication dating back to 11,000 B.C. in the South Caucasus. A multinational research network, utilizing DNA samples from over 3,500 vines, has unveiled the most detailed model of grapevine evolution, revealing how it survived climate changes and gathered genes from Asia through human migration movements.

An international study has uncovered the origins of the grapevine using the Wild Vine Database at KIT.

Grapevine has a long history as one of the world’s oldest crops. Wine, made from grapes, was among the earliest products to be traded globally, playing a key role in the exchange of cultures, ideas, and religions. At the end of the Ice Age, grapevine originated from the European wild vine. Today, only a few relict populations of this wild vine still exist, one of which can be found on the Ketsch peninsula along the Rhine river, between the cities of Karlsruhe and Mannheim.

The precise origins of wild vine domestication and the evolution of thousands of grapevine varieties remain shrouded in mystery, lost in the prehistoric era. However, it is known that grapevine has persevered through significant climate changes and acquired genetic material from Asia through early human migration. Still, the question of whether grapes used for wine production and table grapes have the same origin remains unanswered.

“For some years now, it has been known that today’s Silk Road once was a wine road. The Chinese symbol for alcohol is derived from Georgian wine jugs, so-called Qevri,“ explains Professor Peter Nick of KIT’s Joseph-Gottlieb Kölreuter Institut for Plant Sciences (JKIP). Nick, who had already cooperated with Chinese researchers in a previous project to determine grapevine genomes, suggested collecting grapevines along the previous Silk Road and to analyze their genomes.

Grapes Grapevine

Vines (from the left, grapes of wild vine, table grapes, and grapes for wine production) have accompanied civilizations for thousands of years. A genome project has now determined the origin and evolution of vine. Credit: Karlheinz Knoch, KIT

Most Detailed Model of the Evolution and Domestication of Grapevine So Far

Nick’s idea gave rise to a network of researchers from 16 countries, who contributed not only wild vines and old species from their regions but also knowledge of their origin and history. Under most difficult circumstances resulting from the global political situation, DNA samples of more than 3500 vines, including more than 1000 wild species, were sent to the State Key Laboratory for Conservation and Utilization of Bio-Resources of Yunnan Agricultural University.

There, the genomes were decoded under the direction of Dr. Wei Chen and the most detailed model of the evolution and domestication of grapevines so far was generated. As a result, a number of new findings have been obtained. Now, the origin of winegrowing can be dated back to earlier than 11,000 B.C. in the South Caucasus. This means that wine is older than bread. Winegrowing technology very quickly spread across the Mediterranean to the west.

Within the shortest terms, cross-breeding with local wild vines produced a large variety of vines that were reproduced using cuttings. About 7000 years ago in the Middle East, large-berry species developed into table vines.

Domestication was accompanied by climatic changes, i.e. the end of the Ice Age, as well as by the warm and moist Atlantic, a climate period between 8000 and 4000 B.C. The resulting human migration movements left their traces in the genome of the vines. Medieval vines in Southwest Germany, for instance, contain genes of vines from Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

KIT’s Collection of Wild Vines Helps Unveil Grapevine Evolution

KIT did not only contribute the idea underlying this genome project but also to its globally unique collection of European wild vines and very old medieval species that had been deemed to be extinct until a few years ago.

“Search for the different grapevines was very thrilling,” Nick says. “Many vines came from the Magarach collection on Crimea. After Russian annexation in 2014, Ukrainian researchers fled and are now distributed all over the world, as are the vines.”

Nick located his colleagues in Russian-speaking social networks and brought them in contact with the Chinese research team. The genome project does not only shed light on the history of grapevine but also is relevant to the future, he says. “We have not only documented the entire biodiversity of species but now possess all the genetic information for more specific use.”

Within the Interreg Upper Rhine Project KliWiReSSe, climate resilience genes from wild vines are crossed with presently grown vines to make them more resilient against the impacts of climate change.

Reference: “Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution” by Yang Dong, Shengchang Duan, Qiuju Xia, Zhenchang Liang, Xiao Dong, Kristine Margaryan, Mirza Musayev, Svitlana Goryslavets, Goran Zdunić, Pierre-François Bert, Thierry Lacombe, Erika Maul, Peter Nick, Kakha Bitskinashvili, György Dénes Bisztray, Elyashiv Drori, Gabriella De Lorenzis, Jorge Cunha, Carmen Florentina Popescu, Rosa Arroyo-Garcia, Claire Arnold, Ali Ergül, Yifan Zhu, Chao Ma, Shufen Wang, Siqi Liu, Liu Tang, Chunping Wang, Dawei Li, Yunbing Pan, Jingxian Li, Ling Yang, Xuzhen Li, Guisheng Xiang, Zijiang Yang, Baozheng Chen, Zhanwu Dai, Yi Wang, Arsen Arakelyan, Varis Kuliyev, Gennady Spotar, Nabil Girollet, Serge Delrot, Nathalie Ollat, Patrice This, Cécile Marchal, Gautier Sarah, Valérie Laucou, Roberto Bacilieri, Franco Röckel, Pingyin Guan, Andreas Jung, Michael Riemann, Levan Ujmajuridze, Tekle Zakalashvili, David Maghradze, Maria Höhn, Gizella Jahnke, Erzsébet Kiss, Tamás Deák, Oshrit Rahimi, Sariel Hübner, Fabrizio Grassi, Francesco Mercati, Francesco Sunseri, José Eiras-Dias, Anamaria Mirabela Dumitru, David Carrasco, Alberto Rodriguez-Izquierdo, Gregorio Muñoz, Tamer Uysal, Cengiz Özer, Kemal Kazan, Meilong Xu, Yunyue Wang, Shusheng Zhu, Jiang Lu, Maoxiang Zhao, Lei Wang, Songtao Jiu, Ying Zhang, Lei Sun, Huanming Yang, Ehud Weiss, Shiping Wang, Youyong Zhu, Shaohua Li, Jun Sheng and Wei Chen, 2 March 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.add8655

3 Comments on "Scientists Determine the Origins of One the World’s Oldest Crops"

  1. T.R.Valentine | April 18, 2023 at 8:38 am | Reply

    1st paragraph — shouldn’t that be ‘relict populations’?

  2. Excellent source of information thanks

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