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Grapevines and rice yield clues on early agriculture and civilizations

Geneticists sequence the grapevine genome, and archaeologists may have found where rice was first cultivated in China.

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For the first time, geneticists have sequenced the genome of the grapevine. Their first reading of this information already has revealed significant changes that millenniums of selective breeding have made in this fruitful plant. Meanwhile, archaeologists have found what appears to be a site where rice was first cultivated in China.

Whether seen through the lens of 21st-century genetics or uncovered by traditional dig-and-sift archaeology, the story of the development of agriculture is becoming clearer. It is synonymous with the rise of civilization.

The grapevine geneticists made this point when they described their work in Nature last month. They quote the ancient Greek historian Thucydides' assertion "that Mediterranean people began to emerge from ignorance when they learnt to cultivate olives and grapes."

The specific grapevine studied is a variety of Pinot Noir. It has been inbred in a way that makes its genome easier to sequence. A large team carried out the research for the French-Italian Public Consortium for Grapevine Genome Characterization. Thus the consortium is listed as the author of the scientific paper, not the individual scientists. So far, it is only the fourth flowering plant, the second woody plant, and the first fruit crop plant to have its genome sequenced.

Two research findings stand out: Grapevine shares a common ancestor with a group of plants that include poplar, legumes, cotton, and other useful species. Knowing the grapevine sequence sharpens scientists' understanding of what still is shared genetically throughout this plant group. Also, the grapevine genome is enriched to favor production of terpenes and tannins that influence the quality, aroma, and flavor of wines. The hand of the husbandman is evident here.

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