NEW YORK, May 16 - Up until now, countries like Germany and Switzerland have led the European race to develop home-grown genomics industries. France has yet to find a niche all its own.
But with a new bacterial sequencing project led by Grenoble-based Genome Express, that may begin to change.
The company said yesterday it will now expand its integrated-genomic services and sequencing capabilities throughout Europe. Its flagship demonstration project: decoding the sequence of Oenicoccus oeni, better known as the bacterium responsible for the delicacy and complexity of fine red wines.
The bug is essential to malolactic fermentation, the tricky final stage of wine production that results in the smooth, hearty flavor of a good vintage.
Why this project? "Because it's a bacterium that enters into wine making," responded company representative Françoise Laurent. Besides, she added, "we are French."
Genome Express will sequence and annotate O. oeni with collaborators in the Dijon and Bordeaux centers of the French National Institute of Agronomic Research, backed by €1 million, or roughly $912,000, from Anvar, a governmental agency that incubates high-tech businesses and promotes technology transfer.
Aside from the contribution to national pride, there are practical reasons for decoding O.oeni, said CEO Yves Laurent. It can survive in an intensely acid environment, making its genetic properties potentially valuable in industrial applications.
The bacterium is also a vital part of the economics of wine making. In order to make sure that O. oeni is present in the young wine, vintners use a freeze-dried inoculum or add the lees of a previous batch. Under the wrong conditions, though, the same bacterium also can produce the distinctive flavors of sauerkraut or accidentally turn a nice Bordeaux into a sparkling wine.
"We will use this as a model, a proof of concept," added Yves Laurent. "It's more to prove that we can sequence the bacterium--it's another job to use those properties in an industrial setting."
Genome Express, launched in 1994, provides whole-genome sequencing, BAC fingerprinting, cDNA library construction, cloning services, and related services. It has about 50 staff split between its Grenoble headquarters and the Pullman, Wash., offices of its division Amplicon Express.