As the former editor of DNA.com (a startup created by Netscape founder Jim Clark, with James Watson on the board) when genetics was health's new poster child, I am vastly relieved to see more and more emphasis on our current activities rather than on genetic destiny (of which there is very little, in terms of known diseases, a fact that the much touted 23andme.com ignored at its peril as it discovered this week when the FDA shut it down for unsubstantiated interpretations).
In his article, Pollan writes:
Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford, suggests that we would do well to begin regarding the human body as “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.” This humbling new way of thinking about the self has large implications for human and microbial health, which turn out to be inextricably linked.
One of the stranger immediate applications of the new "Our Biome R Us" thinking is fecal transplants that may help the obese, who have a hard time losing weight, by introducing bacteria into their biomes from skinny humans. (Read the New York Times article Gut Bacteria From Thin Humans Can Slim Mice Down to learn the details; I won't repeat them all here).
Not that anyone's forgetting about genetic manipulations - just look at those engaged in the brave new world effort of bringing back extinct species. But it's good to see bacteria getting more of their just desserts - they haven't gotten enough respect. The amount of time needed to conduct research studies on fast acting bacteria is much more attractive than the amount of time needed to establish genetic linkages, establish tests and apply preventive measures.
When it comes to bacterial interventions, as go the humans, so goes the wine world. New thinking is coming forward about the implications of the role of microbes in wine taste and how it might be used as a new tool in the winemaker's arsenal.
New research published this week from U.C. Davis says wine terroir is partly a function of the microbial life of grapes who share similarities and differences in bacteria regionally or even from vine to vine in the same vineyards.
As any good Biodynamic® winemaker can tell you, native yeasts ain't all the same. They act differently and give different qualities to wine. (Most wine is made with commercial yeast which introduces a whole other factor to the winemaking equation.)
The U.C. study has tremendous implications.
“The study results represent a real paradigm shift in our understanding of grape and wine production, as well as other food and agricultural systems in which microbial communities impact the qualities of the fresh or processed products,” said Professor David Mills, a microbiologist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology and Department of Food Science and Technology.
One big question is: will wineries attempt to do the equivalent of a fecal transplant on vineyards - i.e. importing microbes from the world's best known vineyards?
Other questions that arise - at least for me - are what is the impact of organic and Biodynamic practices on microbial life in wine grapes? We know that organic matter stimulates microbial life. Biodynamic practices do, too. The study was conducted with the help of Constellation Brands. I don't know if they have any organic or Biodynamic vineyards or if they were part of the study's considerations.
I'll be interviewing one of the intrepid U.C. Davis researchers this coming week and will let you know what they say about these and other topics.