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Grapevines first domesticated in Israel 11,000 years ago

By analyzing the genetic makeup of grapevines, a team of scientists led by Ariel University in Israel has found that the harsh climate during the Pleistocene period resulted in the fragmentation of wild ecotypes. This process paved the way towards the domestication of grapevine about 11,000 years ago in the Near East (Israel) and Caucasus. 

In order to identify the genetic changes that occurred during the domestication and evolution of grapevines in Eurasia, the experts sequenced the genomes of 3525 grapevine accessions (2503 domesticated (V. vinifera) and 1022 wild (V. sylvestris)). 

The investigation revealed that the Israel wild grapevine population (Syl-E1) is the source for the domestication of grapes, which afterwards dispersed into many areas of Europe with early farmers, introgressed with ancient wild western ecotypes, and – by the late Neolithic – diversified into unique western wine grape ancestries. Thus, although the precise timeline for these processes is not yet clear, hybridization with local V. Sylvestris seemed to be common in creating extant European wine grapes.

“Our findings provide important insights into the domestication and evolution of grapevine, which is a religiously, culturally, and economically important crop,” said study co-author Elyashiv Drori, an expert in Molecular Biology and Oenology at Ariel.

“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.”  

“This is a research breakthrough in the field of the beginning of agriculture as well,” added co-author Ehud Weiss, a specialist in the domestication of crops at Bar Ilan University. “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.”

Since vineyards worldwide are currently threatened by climate change and a variety of emerging diseases, these findings could help develop new strategies to protect and sustain the wine industry in the future. By studying in greater detail the main features of Israel’s indigenous grapevine and what allowed it to develop in the dry and harsh climatic conditions of ancient Levant, the researchers hope to discover a repository for resistance genes that could be used to protect extant grapevine species. 

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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