Wine Media, I’m Ashamed of You

It’s been in the news for the past week. Researchers from the Australian Wine Research Institute, led by Dr. Chris Curtin, have sequenced the genome of Brettanomyces bruxellensis (aka Dekkera bruxellensis) and are promising that a magic bullet solution to winery “brett” problems will be forthcoming. Decanter and Wine Spectator have both headlined the story.

If either of those publications has a microbiologist – or any biologist or biochemist, really – on staff, he or she should be ashamed of letting this one slip.

Sequencing any organism is unquestionably an accomplishment, though it requires more capital investment than scientific ingenuity in the present rapid-sequencing era. And I have great respect for the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), a government-supported organization that has turned out insightful and important research especially over the past twenty years. But I have to wonder when I see the AWRI managing director Sakkie Pretorius quoted as saying “Sequencing the brett genome, which reveals its genetic blueprint, means the Australian wine industry can future-proof its strategy against brett and the risk of spoilage.”

The Brettanomyces genome gives researchers all sorts of useful information, but it by no means guarantees a solution to winery brett problems. For some context, consider that Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic pathogen that causes the death of many people with cystic fibrosis, was sequenced in 2000. We still don’t know how to eradicate it, and it still kills people. Haemophilus influenzae was the first free-living organism to be sequenced (by Craig Venter’s group in 1995) – multiple sequences for different strains have been sequenced since then – and a lot of effort has been put into developing a vaccine for it, but we still haven’t figured out a way to prevent it from making itself comfortable in kids’ ears and causing ear infections. I’m not cherry-picking my examples. Knocking out a problematic infection based on sequencing the causative organism is by far and away the exception, not the rule.

So, as much as it’s thoroughly awesome that the AWRI folks have sequenced brett, it’s a very, very long stretch to conclude that “the Australian wine industry can future-proof its strategy against brett and the risk of spoilage.” With all due respect to everyone at the AWRI, I don’t think so.

One more nagging problem with all of this hubbub is that the research has been published in a magazine called the Wine and Viticulture Journal. Published by the company WineBiz, the Wine and Viticulture Journal is a non peer-reviewed trade publication. Under the ordinary protocols of science, a new genome sequence is introduced to the world via a scholarly article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in addition. I obviously don’t know the motivations of Dr. Curtin and company – and those motivations might be perfectly reasonable – but publishing something like a genome in a trade magazine is highly unconventional and can’t help but raise the question: why wouldn’t you want the respectability of a peer-reviewed publication? According to the conventions of the scientific community, this research won’t truly be taken seriously until it has been vetted by the peer-review process. In short, the press is jumping the gun a bit.

And by the way, Wine Spectator, misspelling the organism’s name (Dekkara?) and improperly capitalizing the species name doesn’t win you any bonus points, either.