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Scientists find something to please wine-lovers

WASHINGTON — Gene scientists are getting around to the good stuff, instead of gloomy topics like the causes of cancer, heart attacks and AIDS. They've just discovered the genes that give red wine its satisfying flavor and aroma — and perhaps its supposed health benefits.

Biologists in France (of course) have deciphered the DNA of a line of grapevines derived from pinot noir, which produce a red wine popularized in the 2004 movie "Sideways."

The DNA contains 30,434 genes that carry the instructions to make the vine, whose scientific name is Vitis vinifera. Among the genes, the researchers found 89 that are responsible for producing the fragrant resins and oils in red grapes.

Typical plants have only half as many such genes as these grapevines do, according to Patrick Wincker, a plant geneticist at the French-Italian Public Consortium for Grapevine Genome Characterization in Evry, France. Wincker is the principal author of a paper published in Sunday's edition of the journal Nature.

The grapevine genes' ``relative abundance is directly correlated with the aromatic features of wines,'' Wincker wrote.

Similar genes are credited with the distinctive scent of peppermint plants, he reported.

In addition, another 43 grapevine genes are involved in the synthesis of resveratrol, a substance found in the skin of red grapes that gets taken up in wine. Resveratrol activates a gene that has been shown to slow down the aging process in plant and animal cells.

Resveratrol ``has been associated with the health benefits associated with moderate consumption of red wine,'' Wincker wrote.

The new understanding of grapevine genes may help explain the wide diversity of wine flavors, he said.

In March, for example, Australian scientists reported finding mutations in two red-grape genes that produced a white grapevine that was the parent of most of the world's white-grape varieties.

``If only one gene had been mutated, most grapes would still be red and we would not have the more than 3,000 white grape cultivars available today,'' plant geneticist Amanda Walker reported.

In his Nature paper, Wincker said his French-Italian team chose to work on grapevines, the first fruit plant to have its genome decoded, ``because of its important place in the cultural heritage of humanity, beginning in the Neolithic period.'' The period is also known as the New Stone Age, dating from about 10,000 years ago.

Ancient writers affirm wine's historic place. Wincker noted that the Greek historian Thucydides (450-395 B.C.) wrote that ``the Mediterranean people began to emerge from ignorance when they learnt to cultivate olives and grapes.''

Traces of white wine were found in the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamun, who reigned from 1333 to 1324 B.C.

For more information at the USDA: grapevines