GMOs and Winemaking – Comprehensive


Could GMO techniques be used in winemaking?  Surely the answer is no.  Well, in truth, the answer is yes, even in some wine.  However, not in the grapes themselves as described below.  Whether genetic engineering is a problem or not needs to be decided by each person individually.  However, most thconsumers feel strongly that the American public should be able to choose whether they ingest GMOs or not and currently that is not an option because only in the state of Vermont are labeling laws required to indicate this form of production.

This post begins with a basic description of what genetic engineering entails, a comprehensive timeline on the rollout of GMO development, an overview on GMOs in wine, global adoption of GM crops with a map, the current state on Labeling Laws for GMO and concluding with a list of pros and cons as debated by the scientific community, regulatory bodies and the American public.

This is a comprehensive and technical article;  an abbreviated version follows.

Basic Overview of GMOs

Humans have domesticated plants and animals since around 12,000 BCE using selective breeding, also called artificial selection, in which organisms with desired traits are used to breed the next generation and organisms lacking the trait are not bred.  This process was a precursor to the modern concept of genetic modification.  Various advancements in genetics have allowed humans to directly alter the DNA and therefore genes of organisms.

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques and is a strictly human-driven process that cannot occur naturally, or without human intervention. GMOs are widely used in scientific research and are a source of medicines and genetically modified foods.  Examples of genetic engineering  in non-food crops include production of pharmaceutical agents, biofuels, and other industrially useful goods, as well as bioremediation (treatment that uses genetically modified organisms to break down hazardous substances into less toxic or nontoxic substances).

Genetically modified crops (biotech crops) are plants who’s DNA  has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. As with selective breeding, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. Examples in food crops include resistance to certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, improving the nutrient profile of the crop or resistance to chemical treatments (e.g. resistance to an herbicide so that it may be applied directly without killing the food source).

There are two main categories of genetically modified organisms based on the nature by which the genotypical changes are introduced:  cisgenesis and transgenesis.  Cisgenesis is a product designation for a category of genetically engineered plants.  Cisgenic plants contain genes that have been isolated either directly from the host species or from sexually compatible species that could have otherwise been conventionally bred. The new genes are introduced using recombinant DNA methods and gene transfer.   In a transgenic organism, the genetic makeup has been altered by the addition of genetic material from an unrelated organism (e.g. a transgenic animal has had its genome altered by the transfer of a gene from another species or breed).

Genetic modification involves the mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes. Inserted genes usually come from a different species.   In nature this can occur when exogenous DNA penetrates the cell membrane for any reason. This can be accomplished artificially by one of the following methods:

    • attaching the genes to a virus
    • physically inserting the extra DNA into the nucleus of the intended host with a very small syringe
    • introducing DNA from one organism into the cell of another by use of an electric pulse
    • firing small particles from a gene gun
    • natural forms of gene transfer, such as the ability of Agrobacterium to transfer genetic material to plants, or the ability of lentiviruses to transfer genes to animal cells

Timeline on the Development of GMOs

1972 – Paul Berg, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, created the first Recombinant DNA molecule when he combined DNA from a monkey virus with that of the lambda virus, a bacterial virus that infects the bacterial species E. coli. This gene-splicing technique was a fundamental step in the development of modern genetic engineering.

1973 – Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen made the first genetically modified organism

1973 – Rudolf Jaensch created a transgenic mouse by introducing foreign DNA into its embryo, making it the world’s first transgenic animal.

1982 – The first genetically modified crop, an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant, was produced

1982 – Humulin, genetically engineered human insulin produced by bacteria, was approved for release by the Food and Drug Administration

1983 – The first genetically engineered plant was developed by scientists Bevan, Flavell and Chilton.

1985 – The first transgenic livestock were produced

1987 – A strain of P. syringae bacteria became the first genetically modified organism to be released into the environment­­­­­­­­. It was sprayed on a strawberry field and a potato field in California

1987 – Mice were the first animals to synthesize transgenic proteins in their milk, engineered to produce human tissue plasminogen activator

1992 – China was the first country to commercialize transgenic plants, introducing a virus-resistant tobacco

1994 – Calgene attained approval to commercially release the Flavr-Savr tomato, the first genetically modified food

1995 – An insect resistant potato was approved for release in the USA

1996 – Approval was granted to commercially grow 8 transgenic crops and one flower crop (carnation) in 6 countries plus the EU

Courtesy WikiCommons

Courtesy WikiCommons

2000 – Vitamin A-enriched golden rice became the first GMO plant developed with increased nutrient value

2003 – The first genetically modified animal to be commercialized was the GloFish.  Though genetically modified in 1999 by scientists at the National University of Singapore, two businessmen from Yorktown Technologies, L.P., a company in Austin, Texas obtained the worldwide rights to market the fluorescent zebrafish, which Yorktown subsequently branded as “GloFish”.

2004 – Australian company – Florigene, and a Japanese company – Suntory, created a blue rose (actually lavender or mauve)
Courtesy WikiCommons

Courtesy WikiCommons

2010 – Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, announced that they had created the first synthetic bacterial genome. They named it Synthia and it was the world’s first synthetic life form

2015 – The first genetically modified animal to be approved for food use was AquAdvantageSalmon engineered by AquaBounty Technologies, a biotechnology company based in Maynard, Massachusetts. Intrexon acquired majority ownership of AquaBounty in 2013. The salmon are transformed with a growth hormone-regulating gene enabling them to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer.  The fish grows to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.  The company plans to provide farmers with fish rather than eggs, and has proposed that AquAdvantage fish only be raised in land-based facilities that never touch an ocean

GMOs in Winemaking:

Currently wine grapes are not genetically engineered.  The wine industry is inherently engrained in tradition and therefore a segment of the market least receptive to bio-engineering techniques.  Wine grape varieties have been produced via cloning or hybridization for hundreds of years.  For the purpose of specifically avoiding any genetic change, they are grown from rooted cuttings or non GMO Winesfrom grafted buds. Grapes produce seeds, however, the seed won’t grow up to be identical to the parent so are never used as a way to grow new vines.

Genetic engineering is introduced into wine through yeasts and enzymes used in the winemaking process.  Genetically modified yeast strains are beneficial in many ways, such as enhancing fermentation, raising yeast ethanol tolerance, improving sugar utilization and nitrogen assimilation, as well as altering sensory aspects of a wine.  Modifications to yeast strains do not change essential characteristics of the parent strain in the fermentation process; however, they do alter their metabolic processes.

Enzymes have a variety of functions in the winemaking process and are the target of genetic modification in the US, Canada and the EU.  Glucanases are th43KP07Q5used in the clarification of must and in the enhancement of filterability, pectinase breaks down pectin in the fruit, cellulases contribute to the enzymatic splitting of cellulose, hemicellulose splits components of cell walls in plants, and laccase transforms phenols into chinones and water.  As is true with food crops, the best way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic as products containing GMOs cannot be labeled “organic”.

Global Adoption of GMO Crops

Bringing a new GMO to market involves extensive safety and environmental review by regulatory bodies around the world. More than 70 governments globally review and regulate GMOs. In the United States, agencies include the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  As of 2015, GMOs are grown, imported and/or used in more than 70 countries. Each of these countries has its own rigorous certification process.

Map by GMO Answers

Map by GMO Answers

Labeling Laws for GMOs

On July 7, 2016, the US Senate passed a bill that would set a national labeling standard for Labeling GMOsfoods containing genetically engineered (GMO) ingredients. Since this bill is in contradiction to the HR 1599 Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 which spells out a voluntary GMO labeling program, there will need to be a new bill passed in the House of Representatives before the new bill can be brought before the President to be signed into law.

Most of the 27 EU member states are free of GMOs and several have banned them. Europeans oppose GM food by a margin of three to one, according to a 2010 poll. And unlike consumers in the US, Europeans must be informed if food they are buying contains as little as 1% GMO.  EU Countries are permitted to use GM enzymes in the winemaking process and this addition does not require labeling.

Pros and Cons

With respect to the question of “Whether GMO foods are safe to eat,” the gap between the opinion of the public and that of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists is very wide with 88% of AAAS scientists saying yes in contrast to 37% of the general public. In 2014, sales of food products that had been labeled as non-GMO grew 30 percent.


A 2016 study by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which includes more than 300 Nobel-winning scientists among its members, concluded that GM foods are safe for human consumption and they could find no conclusive evidence that they harm neither environment nor wildlife.

A broad scientific consensus holds that currently marketed GM food poses no greater risk than conventional food,   No reports of ill effects have been documented in the human population. In 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science stated that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques. The American Medical Association, the National Academies of Sciences and the Royal Society of Medicine have stated that no adverse human health effects related to GM food have been reported and/or substantiated in peer-reviewed literature to date.


Surveys indicate public concerns that eating genetically modified food is harmful, that biotechnology is risky, that more information is needed and that consumers need control over whether to take such risks.  A 2013 poll by The New York Times showed that 93% of Americans want labeling of GM food.

Glyphosate and Glyphosate Resistant Crops:  An in-direct concern exists with Glyphosate, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds and grasses that compete with crops.  It was discovered by Monsanto and brought to market in 1974 under the trade name Roundup.  Monsanto’s last commercially relevant United States patent expired in 2000 with a dramatic rise in glyphosate products flooding the market.

Monsanto scientists subsequently genetically modified soybeans to be resistant to glyphosate, allowing the product to be sprayed directly onto the food crop and in 1996 the soybeans were made commercially available.  Current glyphosate-resistant crops include soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, and cotton, with wheat still under development.  In 2015, 89% of corn, 94% of soybeans, and 89% of cotton produced in the US were genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant. While glyphosate and formulations such as Roundup have been approved by regulatory bodies worldwide, concerns about their effects on humans and the environment persist.

Outcrossing:  Genes from a GMO may pass to another organism. The process is known as outcrossing and can occur in any new open-pollinated crop variety. Introduced traits can potentially cross into neighboring plants of the same or closely related species through three different types of gene flow: crop-to-crop, crop-to-weedy, and crop-to-wild.  There are concerns that the spread of genes from modified organisms to unmodified relatives could produce species of weeds resistant to herbicides that could contaminate nearby non-genetically modified crops, or could disrupt the ecosystem.


The field of genetic engineering is growing in leaps and bounds.  Production involves plants, microbes, animals, fish, frogs and invertebrate for a multitude of purposes.  It would be prudent to become knowledgeable about this vast subject as it has already and will continue to impact your life through a variety of pathways.  It is only through knowledge and research that each person can form their own set of beliefs on the very controversial subject of genetic engineering.


Pollack, Andrew (2016-05-17). “Genetically Engineered Crops Are Safe, Analysis Finds”. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331

GMO Compass

Smithsonian (2015). “Some Brands Are Labeling Products “GMO-free” Even if They Don’t Have Genes

Biology Fortified

Nicolia, Alessandro; Manzo, Alberto; Veronesi, Fabio; Rosellini, Daniele (2013). “An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research” (PDF).

Landrigan, Philip J.; Benbrook, Charles (2015). “GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health”. New England Journal of Medicine (New England Journal of Medicine) 373 (8): 693. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1505660. PMID 26287848.

Wikipedia;  Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)

GMO Answers

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