VitisGen2 Staff Spotlight – Jack Olson

Jack Olson is an M.S. graduate research assistant at the University of Minnesota. He was born and raised in Minnesota, and after graduating from Stillwater Area High School in the fall of 2015, he went to the University of Minnesota for a Bachelor’s degree in Plant Sciences. He is now working on finishing his Master’s degree in the Applied Plant Sciences program at the University of Minnesota with an expectation to defend summer 2020. He joined the University of Minnesota grape breeding program and the VitisGen2 project in the spring of 2019 under Dr. Matthew Clark. Jack’s research is focused on the phenotypic and genotypic characterization of leaf variegation in grapevine, which is a trait that causes white sectors of leaf tissue that are absent of chlorophyll. What got you interested in physiology and genetics of hybrid grapevines?
I had a realization my Junior year of undergrad that I didn’t have a specific crop or area of plant science I was interested in. I thought that joining a plant breeding lab would be a solution to help me find something that piqued my interest. I eventually joined the grape breeding lab and I was immediately fascinated by the vast diversity of the plant, as well as, the beautiful vineyards I was working in. Matt eventually offered me a research project to investigate the genetic basis for leaf variegation in hybrid grapevine. I accepted this offer and the project eventually turned into a Master’s thesis. Leaf variegation is a common trait that has been studied among other plant species, but there is very limited work on leaf variegation in hybrid grapevine. I enjoy the novelty of the research and I hope that my work will help progress our breeding program.

How does your research fit in with the overall goals of the VitsGen2 project?
One of the goals of VitisGen2 is to develop novel methods to improve grape characteristics through breeding and genomics. In my research, I am using a new sequencing approach that VitisGen2 developed called “rhAmp-Seq”, which we hope will identify the causal gene(s) underlying leaf variegation. Leaf variegation is a deleterious trait so we hope to slowly remove the trait from our breeding populations and we believe that rhAmp-Seq will allow us to: (1) identify the causal gene(s), (2) develop a marker for marker-assisted selection, and (3) use marker-assisted selection in our breeding program to cull individuals and assist in parental selection for crosses.

What are some major challenges faced by the industry/researchers, and how will your work address them?
One major challenge faced by researchers working on cold-hardy hybrid grapes is that these grape varieties are highly hybridized and this can make it very difficult to do genetics-related work. The populations used in my research have been developed from six different Vitis species. The reference genome we use to align our sequences is from ‘Pinot Noir’, which is a pure V. vinifera variety. Also, grape is a highly heterozygous crop which just adds to the degree of difficulty when doing genomics. My work will not directly address these issues, but hopefully my work will provide evidence that rhAmp-Seq is a functional and useful sequencing approach for hybrid grapes.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned or done since starting work with VitisGen2?
The most exciting thing I’ve learned to do is genetic mapping and genome-wide association mapping. With the help of Avi Karn at VitisGen2 I have been able to learn and perform genetic analyses for my research. During my undergrad, I would learn about these mapping strategies, but never actually do them, so it’s fun to be able to do it with my own data.

What (music/podcasts/friends/other inspiration) do you use to stay engaged and focus when the work gets repetitive?
When I’m doing repetitive things in the lab or on my computer I am typically listening to a podcast. I often get anxious when I have a long, repetitive task to do, but it helps tremendously when I can shift my focus to the podcast rather than the work. Majority of the time I am listening to a sports podcast like “Pardon My Take” or “The Bill Simmons Podcast”.