Coinciding with World Food Day, a team of plant scientists from King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) established a major project to improve global date palm production and protection.
This project is the first time that the date palm genome has been studied so comprehensively. Dr. Ikram Blilou, professor of plant science at KAUST, and her research team in Saudi Arabia have collected samples from ancient date palms in the historical farm of Al-Dabeta, by the Quba Mosque in Madinah.
“Our main goal is to improve date palm fruit production and quality in the Kingdom. With more than 2,000 existing varieties globally from which 400 grow in Saudi Arabia, we are concentrating on the ‘Ajwa’ date variety, because of its important societal and religious value for Saudi Arabia in particular,” said Dr. Blilou.
Earlier this year, Dr. Blilou published in the scientific journal Plant Cell, findings that provide an insight into how desert plants are able to thrive in hostile habitats. The research teams within KAUST’s Center for Desert Agriculture are creating molecular and biotechnological tools to improve date palm agriculture by sequencing the genome of the Ajwa date palm.
“The date palm is one of the few fruit trees that, remarkably, can grow in the desert, a habitat with an arid climate where extreme temperature changes and drought conditions limit plant growth,” said Dr. Blilou.
“Within KAUST’s Center for Desert Agriculture Research we are studying date palms using advanced genome sequencing techniques and have begun to develop new breeding strategies to help palms grow faster and healthier as well as making them more resistant to pathogens and pests like the red palm weevil.”
According to the National Palms and Dates Center (NCPD), Saudi Arabia produces an estimated 1.1 million tons of dates per year, 15 percent of the world’s date production. In addition, export of dates from Saudi Arabia grew by 11.7 percent in 2018 compared to 2017.
“Despite this economic importance, basic research into the date palm, including understanding mechanisms of growth and adaptation to the desert environment, is still in its early stages mainly because of the lack of molecular tools and the challenging nature of the plant. It requires a long generation time for flowering which can be four to five years and setting fruits that take 10 to 15 years,” said Dr. Rod Wing, professor of plant science and director of the KAUST Center for Desert Agriculture.
The next step for researchers at this center is to work on generating high-quality genomes for a large number of other varieties of date palms, bringing further potential benefits for date palm agriculture around the world.