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The Origin of the World’s Grapevines

This is some of the first evidence that perennial and annual plant domestication happened at the same time

Ariel University

A recent study on the genetic makeup of grapevine has revealed fascinating insights into its domestication and evolution. The study, published in the journal Science, suggests that the harsh climate during the Pleistocene era resulted in the fragmentation of wild ecotypes, which paved the way for the domestication of grapevine about 11,000 years ago in the Near East (Israel) and the Caucasus.

The research team sequenced the genomes of 3,525 grapevine accessions (2,503 V. vinifera (domesticated) and 1,022 V. sylvestris (wild) accessions of grapevine) to identify the genetic changes that occurred during domestication and evolution of grapevine in Euro-Asia.

According to the study, the Near East (Israel) wild grapevine population (Syl-E1) is the source for the domestication of table grapes, which then dispersed into Europe with early farmers, introgressed with ancient wild western ecotypes, and diversified into unique western wine grape ancestries by the late Neolithic.

Furthermore, the study shows that hybridization with local V. sylvestris was common in creating extant European wine grapes. However, when these introgression events occurred, remain unknown.

Dr. Elyashiv Drori, Head of the Samson Family Grape and Wine Research Centre at Ariel University and Eastern Regional R&D Center says, "Our findings provide important insights into the domestication and evolution of grapevine, which is a religiously, culturally, and economically important crop.

The indigenous grapevine population we have collected in the last 12 years, containing both wild and domesticated subpopulations, have central importance in this research. The Israeli wild grapevines (Syl -E1) were found to be the source of domestication for all the cultivated group of table grapes (CG1), which includes the Israeli domesticated grapevines. This initial group of grapevine varieties then were dispersed to eastern and western Europe, to form most of the known wine grapes. We now aim to deeply study the characteristics of Israel's indigenous grapevine, which were developed in the dry and harsh conditions of the Levant, and may pose a repository for resistance genes.

With climate change and emerging diseases threatening vineyards worldwide, the study's findings may help in developing new strategies to protect and sustain the wine industry for future generations.

Professor Ehud Weiss, head of the archeobotanical lab at Martin (Szuss) Department of Land of Israel, Bar Ilan University, a specialist in the domestication of crops and archeobotany, gave important insights as to the domestication history. Weiss adds "this is a research breakthrough in the field of the beginning of agriculture as well. The accepted view was that annual crops, like wheat, barley, and legumes, were domesticated some 10,000 years ago, while perennials were domesticated thousands of years later. Current research changes this view and demonstrates these transitions occurred simultaneously, and moreover, with the same species, some 1,600 kilometers apart—a phenomenon we have never met."

Two Israeli scientists collaborated with Drori's team in this project. Weiss collaborated with Drori to identify the varieties used by ancestors in the land of Israel using genetic and morphological tools. Dr. Sariel Hubner from Migal is a bioinformatician. Hubner is working with Drori's group on the population genetics of the Israeli wild and domesticated grapevines. This collaborative research group published the first research paper describing the possible local domestication of grapevine in Israel in 2021 (Sivan 2021). 

This is a ground-breaking study also in the field of the beginnings of agriculture. This is the first research proof that the domestication of a perennial plant happened at the same time as the domestication of annuals, wheat, barley, legumes, and flax. Until today, it was common to say that fruit trees were domesticated several thousand years later. In addition, the double domestication of the same species into two varieties, in our case the edible grape variety and the wine grape variety, happened at the same time in two separate geographical centers—a phenomenon we had not known until now.

- This press release was provided by Ariel University