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.

30 thoughts on “Wine Media, I’m Ashamed of You

  1. Peter Godden from AWRI explained today at jancisrobinson.com (behind the paywall) some background and details of this research, in particular he wrote “From the start, sequencing was about future proofing the industry against a Brett strain mutating to become more sulfite tolerant, and to do that we needed to find regions of the genome to monitor. In having achieved that, and having identified the part of the genome related to sulfite tolerance, we will now be able to test very quickly if a mutation in that part of the genome has occurred and thus if a particular strain is more sulfite tolerant than any we have seen before. ”

    Greetings from Poland!

    • Thank you very much for the extra info, Andrzej (the Purple Pages just don’t fit into this grad student’s financial plan.) I suppose that statements like these are part and parcel of what confuse me about what the AWRI scientists themselves seem to be saying. Finding sections of the genome to monitor for new mutations is great; no problem there. But what will the AWRI do once they’ve found those mutations? How will they then rescue or redeem wineries where the new — or, for that matter, any old — Brett strain appears? Saying that a problem exists is very different from solving the problem, and I think that wine microbiology has a lot of work to do before confidently crying “solution!” I see this as akin to geologists telling us that they can predict when earthquakes will occur. The advance warning is useful, but it doesn’t prevent the earthquake from happening.

      I have the Wines and Viticulture Journal article on-order from the AWRI. We’ll see if anything new comes to light when it arrives.

  2. “If either of those publications has a microbiologist – or any biologist or biochemist, really – on staff,”

    You’re kidding, right? Except it doesn’t seem like you’re kidding.

    Let me explain the media to you: It doesn’t hire microbiologists. And I’m not sure how many people study microbiology in hopes of working for Decanter.

    • What can I say, Blake? My bizarre trajectory has taught me not to make assumptions and, despite my bizarre trajectory, I persist in being unreasonably optimistic about things. I can’t help myself, really.

    • Blake, I know a journal in Poland which hired a mathematician a few years ago, and I can assure you, that when he had been studying maths, he had not even thought of working for a wine publication, but you know, people change, as changes their ideas about things that are important in life :-) . I wouldn’t be very surprised if there was a microbiologist working for a wine journal somewhere, or a nuclear physicist – I know some accomplished physicians doing just that.

      • Erica and Andrzej: Of course you could be right about an isolated individual. But I’m a media guy, have worked in it my whole life, and as Erica knows, it just doesn’t pay well enough usually to attract people with advanced degrees in subjects like microbiology.
        Now here’s the potential exception: People who want to write about wine come from everywhere (especially, for some reason, medical doctors).
        However, I would feel pretty safe in betting you that there are no editors anywhere with degrees in microbiology. Editing has no glamour and you get no samples.

    • Well apparently Fannie Mae hired a historian (some chap named Newt) at a pretty hefty rate so Decanter hiring a microbiologist isn’t completely outside the pale. They just need to be acquired by Robert Murdoch and start covering politics.

  3. Let us hope tho that typing the dna sequence will lead to brett go by by. BTW, I have yet to read a label or advert or hear in the tasting room or from the sales & distrib. channel a winery promote how brett helps their wine. Nobody boasts about their brett wine. I believe that all brett tastes the same, it makes any wine taste like brett, regardless of the variety.

  4. We’re more likely to see a transvestite running the Chrisitan Coalition than Decanter having a microbiologist on its staff.

  5. Great to see your blog about our recent efforts regarding the sequencing of Brett and thought we’d give you some extra information about our work. The AWRI prides itself on scientific rigour: the peer-review manuscript describing this work in detail is under review at the moment, and the assembled genome will be available soon via the public repository Genbank. Your point that a genome sequence does not by itself guarantee a solution to winery Brett problems (or any other biological problem) is accurate. It is important to note that the AWRI has an ongoing commitment to helping the Australian wine industry manage Brett, and genomic sequencing provides a foundation upon which we “can future-proof its strategy against brett”. Our first goal is to implement a strategy to detect emergent strains that have increased tolerance for sulfite (we do not want these strains to disperse across the industry). Our second goal is to find weak points – metabolic deficiencies that can be exploited to make it harder for Brett to grow in wine. What we might do in response to identifying a mutation is impossible to say at the moment, and will obviously depend on what mutations occur. However, the AWRI has a proven track record of developing control strategies for wine spoilage microorganisms. As an industry-owned organization, we are driven by industry relevance, hence our publication also in an industry journal.

    Hopefully this clarifies the matter for you.

    • Thanks for the extra information about the sequence pending publication in a peer-reviewed journal and GenBank. I really do have great respect for the AWRI and knowing this helps preserve that respect. I still take issue with the statement “future-proof its strategy against Brett” since I think it gives a misleading impression to the vast majority of folks who don’t really understand what sequencing a genome means. It will take a lot more work before anyone — even the AWRI — can start promising a solution for Brett.

    • This is scary to me. Brett is an appealing character to many in wines. Obviously too much Brett (too much is defined on and individual by individual basis) can be a problem. Australian wine has enough problems in the marketplace. I hope you do not genetically modify it so that it is even less appealing.

      • It is the Australian wine industry’s position that no genetically modified organism be used in the production of Australian wine. Consumers of Australian wine can be assured that this will be the case until they themselves embrace the technology. In the meantime, Australian winemakers use research outcomes blended with their creative skills in their quest for producing unique quality wines with a sense of place. Enjoy!

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  7. “The Brettanomyces genome gives researchers all sorts of useful information, but it by no means guarantees a solution to winery brett problems.”

    This is, of course, true.

    But if you’re EVER going to find means of controlling Brett, the work done in Australia recently is the single most important step in eventually doing that – a step without which there is just about ZERO possibility of controlling Brett, but with which there is at least SOME appreciable possibility of controlling it. It may certainly take decades to realize that possibility, but the possibility itself is, I think, quite big news for the wine biz. I think it’s enormous news, actually. Cheers!

    • I agree that the sequence is big news and a major accomplishment, Joe, but there is so so so much more work to be done (and important work that has already been done, for that matter) before anyone can call victory that I feel the news coverage of this big news is awfully misleading. Genetics are only part of the picture (and sequencing is only part of genetics), and we’re not helping public scientific literacy if we don’t make that clear. Goodness knows that there is a lot of debate amongst microbiologists as to exactly how important sequencing is, though, so your point is well-taken that some folk (like you) would emphasize this event more than others (like me.)

    • Dude,

      The idea that something cannot be controlled without sequencing its genome is obviously very flawed. (Nothing was controlled until genome sequencing started?)

      This is why major publications employ science writers.

  8. The way this is written leaves the impression that Wine Spectator wrote the same thing that Decanter did. Not true. My story carefully qualified the findings by saying the scientists hoped to be able to deal with this issue after finding the gene that makes the organism sulfite-tolerant. And we did correct the typo on Dekkera after the story went up.

      • If your issue with my reporting was, as you stated in your lede, that this sequencing is no “magic bullet” for Brett, then it doesn’t apply, and I resent the implication. I clearly framed the findings as presenting hope for controlling Brett, no mention of “magic bullets.” If your point is that mapping this genome is no big deal, apparently others beg to differ.

      • I think that I was clear about my problem with both your article and the one published in Decanter. Sequencing Brett is definitely a big, newsworthy deal, but I feel that it is misleading to the general public to associate that sequence with a “magic bullet” against the organism and all of the problems it causes the wine industry. Both the terms “magic bullet” and “future-proofing” carry connotations that I think are terribly problematic for people who don’t have a firm grasp of what sequencing does and doesn’t entail. I’m sorry that I have offended you, but I stand by what I wrote.

      • I never used the term “magic bullet” or “future proofing.” I quoted Curtin as saying “If we can find its achilles heel, we can future-proof the industry against Brett.” My reporting was accurate and not misleading, although you may find the glass half empty while he finds it half full.

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  13. szymanskiea, kudos to you for bringing this to light. As you point out, this information is a step in the right direction but it will take a lot more work before declaring victory. The harsh reality is that many who report on scientific data seem to either take the data set out of context, make assumptions that are untrue, or manipulate it to mean something it is not—or simply don’t understand the information well enough to make conclusive decision. My rule of thumb (and I learned the hard way!) is not to report on stuff that I don’t know. I have a chemistry background and I didn’t understand the information well enough to make any conclusive conclusions, which means I wouldn’t wade into that creek because the slope seems pretty slippery! Cheers.

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