PacSci Perspectives


Soil To Wine

by | May 25, 2018

Brown Family Vineyard

Phase Genomics (pronounced: geh-no-mics), a local start-up that specializes in the ProxiMeta™ Hi-C metagenomic deconvolution method, has partnered with Browne Family Vineyards in a first-of-its-kind experiment that examines the DNA of vineyard soil, known as a microbiome, to deliver important insights into the microscopic world of wine. We talked with Phase Genomics’ Director of Operations, Kayla Young, on the experiment and what our guests can expect to learn at our 21+ event on June 1, Stem: Science Uncorked.

Christina: Kayla, what is it you do and what is Phase Genomics?

Kayla: I am the Director of Operations, which is kind of start-up speak for, I do a little bit of everything. I do project management and work with all of Phase Genomics’ clients. I also do technical support and my background aside—in my former life I was a scientist and received my Ph.D. in molecular physiology and biophysics from Vanderbilt, researching mechanisms of influence secretion in diabetic animals— as well as doing the kind of things that go around operationally with building a new company.

Phase Genomics likes to look at ourselves as a company that builds tools for researchers to enable their science, whatever that project may be. Specifically, what we do is we build genomes. What that means is similar to what the human genome project is, that was about a decade and $3 billion to complete, and we do that same body of work in about a month for a much smaller amount of money. We work with academic and industry researchers to build the genomes of their plants or animals and, in the microbiome case, we look at soil, air and water samples and we’re looking at all the little features that are in those samples.

Christina: You mention microbiomes. What is a microbiome?

Kayla: Great question. Essentially all the microorganisms in a given sample (samples could be water, air, soil). For example, a cancer would have its own microbiome. Or gut intestines, as in humans and animals, all have a very specific type of microbiome. We would be able to “see” all of the microscopic creatures and little bugs, that we can’t normally see with the visible eye, that make up the environment of these samples.

There’s all sorts of things living in the soil— all sorts of bacterium, little microorganisms and algae— and what’s in that soil can very strongly affect how that plant grows. So, if it is void of a microbiome, or if it’s a very simple microbiome, where there’s not a lot found there, then perhaps that can affect how a crop is going to grow, whereas if it is a very diverse microbiome, it may support better growth of certain crops.

Christina: And would you be able to replicate that to help the growth of certain crops?

Kayla: Yeah, that’s the thought. It’s still kind of a new area of research, but the thought is, you can imagine a case where corn, for example, you have one corn field right next to another, maybe a mile apart, with the same corn and one field is growing really well in one area but it’s not growing very well in another area. One reason that could be is the differences in the soils, specifically the microbiomes. In theory, you could then go and try to replicate that soil or only plant in soil that looked like that microbiome where you know it works. These are new areas of research, but there is a lot of potential for it. And that is the type of thing that we are doing for this stem project for Pacific Science Center with Browne Family Vineyards; we are studying how the microbiome for the same grape is different. We are looking at the same grapes, but from three different geographic areas and how the microbiome in those areas are different, even though the grapes are the same.

Christina: What can our guests expect from Phase Genomics at Stem: Science Uncorked?

Kayla: What we did in preparation for this event is we identified three grapes in three different geographic areas— winemakers will classify the type of land that they’re growing on—and we took the same grapes from five different locations, we took soil samples and we’re doing the microbiome makeup of those samples and then we’ll visually show how those microbiomes are different. Our technology, which is called Proximeta, allows us to identify microorganisms. We almost always identify new little bugs in these samples, so I bet we’ll probably identify a bug or two and will also be able to name it, which is just pretty cool. Visually, what guests will expect to see is that we’re actually going to have the soil samples to see how these soil samples differ from a scale of, how filthy they are, sandy they are, dry or dense. Which you can just see visually, see how different the each soil sample is. And then this will go along with our analysis, which we are working to make visually appealing, so that a layperson who is walking in not knowing what a microbiome is, will be able to visually know, intuitively, that these samples are different.

In addition to the graphical data, we will also have wines that are made from those grapes that we’re doing the microbiome for. So it’ll be a presentation of, “here are the grapes, here is a picture of the vineyards, here is what the different soils look like, here is what the soil looks like on a microscopic level and here are the wines that were made from the same grape, but they will taste differently, which we cannot say fully, because of different microbiomes, but it definitely does contribute.

STEM: Science Uncorked

Come learn about the other “stem” education at Science Uncorked. On June 1 under the arches, enjoy an evening sampling some of Washington’s finest wines while exploring the science straight from the vine.