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Three research projects into the genomes of wine-grapes and nectarines — both among Chile’s most important export crops — have been launched by the country’s National Commission of Science and Technology (CONICYT).

The projects will receive a total of US$3.6 million over the next three years under an initiative partly financed by a loan from the Inter American Development Bank.

All three projects are part of the Chile Genome Initiative, which seeks to boost both private and public investment in genomics and bioinformatics, in order to improve the competitiveness of the country’s agricultural and mining exports.

Research proposals on the micro-organisms used to leach minerals out of ore are already being submitted for the second round of funding from the initiatives, which will focus on 'bio-mining genomics'.

"The initiative will help to develop areas, such as bioinformatics and the large-scale analysis of genomic information, that are very poorly developed in this country," says Hugo Peña-Cortés, a plant physiologist and molecular biologist from the Federico Santa María Technical University in Valparaiso, who leads one of the grape genome projects that has just been funded.

The researchers are planning to sequence gene fragments of fruit-associated tissues, as well as those involved in seed formation and the plant's own defence against pathogens, in order to improve post-harvest conservation of grapes and to help combat infection with the fungus Botrytis cinerea. The research will be carried out on varieties used for the production of table grapes (Thompson seedless) and Carménère wine.

A second grape project, led by plant biotechnologist Patricio Arce-Johnson from the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, focuses on grape-vine gene expression in general, and in particular its response to viral infection.

"The sums involved in the initiative are fairly large," says Arce-Johnson. "This will allow [researchers in Chile] to acquire the basic infrastructure for genomic studies, and also to develop the ability to use techniques such as sequencing, microarrays and gene expression analyses".

The project on nectarines focuses on functional genomics, and is led by cellular biologist Ariel Orellana from the University of Chile in Santiago.

Other institutions involved in the projects are the Universities of Santiago and Talca, the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA), the Chilean Exporters Association, the Chile Foundation, the Fruit Development Foundation, Life Science Foundation and Bios Chile Ltd.

All the researchers involved in the projects form part of the National Genomic Plant Network, which is designed to combine research and exchange information.

"One of the objectives is to generate a public data bank accessible for the researchers working in Chile," explains Jenny Blamey from CONICYT, manager of the genome initiative.

"However first we have to protect intellectual property at the international level. The idea is to generate international patents, since we want new processes to be incorporated into products that are commercialised internationally."

Asked whether their intention is to produce transgenic grapes, Arce-Johnson says that the funding period is too short to do this, and points out that none of the three projects stipulates such a goal.

But he adds that they don't discount producing transgenics in the future and that Chile "has to be technically prepared in case an international agreement on the use and commercialisation of transgenics is reached".

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