VitisGen2 Staff Spotlight – Noam Reshef

Noam Reshef joined the Sacks lab at Cornell and the VitisGen2 Fruit Quality team in June 2018, as a postdoc. Noam did his PhD at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research (Ben-Gurion University), located at the heart of the Negev desert, Israel. He studied the metabolic processes involved in the response and acclimatization of wine grapes to the strong desert sun. He is now trying to acclimate himself to the cold, grey winters in Ithaca.
Noam grew up in Israel but discovered his interest in grapes and wine while helping at a farm in New Zealand. Following his undergrad, he completed a joint master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology in France and Spain and worked in wineries and wine research labs in France, Spain, Israel, and South Africa. Noam is excited to be a part of the VitisGen2 team that leads the way for the next generation of sustainable, yet tasty, grape cultivars.

Noam Reshef in vineyard collecting fruit samplesWhat got you interested in grape and wine chemistry?
It’s a funny story. I was hitchhiking in New Zealand when a farmer’s son offered me a lift. That day ended with me chasing and tackling a sick, but stubborn, sheep that needed treatment. The family was grateful, they insisted I’d stay for dinner and asked if I could help in their vineyards. I did, and I was inspired. After four years in IT, it was just what I needed.

What is your role with the VitisGen2 project?
My role within the Vitisgen 2 Fruit Quality team is to study the genetic regulation of sourness in the grape. Grape sourness is affected by the concentration of organic acids in the fruit. This means looking for specific regions in the DNA where polymorphisms (differences in the sequence) translate into differences in organic acid levels between fruits. It also means trying to pinpoint the genes controlling this qualitative trait and study their mechanism of action.

How does your research fit in with the overall goals of the project?
Fruit sourness is considered one of the two major components of fruit taste (the other being sweetness). So, it fits quite clearly with the aim of Vitisgen 2, to map traits of interest in the grape.

What are some major challenges faced by the industry/researchers, and how will your work address them?
The vinifera cultivars we all know are valued for their quality but are susceptible to cold damage and fungal attacks. This leads to major financial losses and high demand for pesticide use. To improve that, breeders cross vinifera cultivars with wild species that are diseases resistant and cold hardy. However, most of these wild species accumulate high levels of malic acid, causing their grapes to taste very sour. This means that a large proportion of the progeny will have poor fruit quality. Currently, after every breeding cycle, vines must be grown for several years until they bear fruit that could be analyzed. Discovering DNA regions that control grape malic acid levels will allow to pre-select progeny according to their potential fruit sourness, right at the seedling stage. The outcome would be acceleration of the breeding process and a major reduction in costs.

What tip would you give someone just beginning a career in the grape and wine industry/ research?
I think it’s essential to experience and familiarize yourself with the diversity that exists in this field. This goes for the extreme environments where grapes are grown and the genetic diversity that exists across grape species. It’s fascinating, and it’s our future.