Heard It Through the Grapevine: More Scientific Infrastructure Problems

Our usual plaint about the state of research infrastructure:

One of the ridiculous things about many depictions of science in TV and movies is the notion that there’s this huge infrastructure: shiny labs (which are always neat and spacious), high-tech this and that, and an army of workers to solve a problem. The reality is that much of our scientific knowledge in any subdiscipline is held by a few people who are operating on shoestring budgets with inadequate resources. To put it bluntly, we often lose considerable knowledge and materials when an older faculty member or researcher dies or retires (in my own subdiscipline of microbiology, there are several valuable collections that would be lost if a single freezer broke for an extended length of time).

Today’s installment–grapes (boldface mine):

Uncertainty hangs over one of the world’s largest and most important grapevine collections. The Domaine de Vassal vineyard, on France’s Mediterranean coast, houses a vast sweep of grape biodiversity that is essential to research and winegrowers in France and around the world.

The 138-year-old collection, managed by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), has been threatened with eviction, prompting a decision to relocate it.

That is raising concerns among scientists and winegrowers, because money to pay for the prospective move — costing an estimated €4 million (US$5.4 million) — has yet to be found. Even then, the sheer logistical complexity is such that relocation is likely to take years to complete, says INRA, and means that much of its research may be put on hold…

“The collection is of utmost value to the international grapevine genetics community,” says Carole Meredith, an emeritus geneticist at the University of California, Davis. “Although many countries have established collections of their own heritage grape varieties, the Vassal collection is among the oldest and best curated.”

Meredith notes that much of her own research would have been “impossible” without this “living library”….

Mark Thomas, a grapevine researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Waite campus in Urrbrae, Australia, says that the Domaine de Vassal is one of the few grapevine germplasm collections to have been extensively characterized genetically, using DNA fingerprinting. This makes it an international reference source, and allows researchers to explore the genetic relationships between varieties, and their origins.

This foundation of information is of great use for those around the world seeking to breed improved grape varieties,” adds Bruce Reisch, who develops such new strains at Cornell University’s research station in Geneva, New York. “It’s extremely important that this collection be preserved well into the future.”

One would think a vinter would step up here, and pay for the move, though ideally the French government would take steps to protect their own patrimony–because that’s what great nations do (bigots can’t blame this one on the Jews…).

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