Whether researchers at NYUAD's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology (CGSB) are conducting drug screening in nematodes, studying neurons in fruit flies, analyzing the genetic development of date palms, or investigating the use of algae as a source of biofuel, the fundamentals of the science are the same. "We all use the technique of DNA and RNA sequencing, or deep sequencing, to address questions that are important to each of us," said NYU New York Silver Professor of Biology Claude Desplan.
"The Center is a way of creating connections across disciplines," said Fabio Piano, NYUAD provost and founding director of the CGSB in New York. "It's a catalyst and hub of activity that brings to bear all the parts of the university on some important questions. And that kind of collaboration has proven to be really powerful."
The Genetic Diversity of the Date Palm
For the past decade, Michael Purugganan has studied the evolution and diversity of crops by analyzing their genomes. He has worked on grass species such as rice and corn, but recently he has taken on the date palm, the iconic crop of the UAE and the region.
Purugganan, who is NYUNY Dorothy Schiff Professor of Genomics and professor of Biology, was intrigued by the date palm because little work had been done on its evolution and cultivation. And with the 100 Dates! Project he leads at NYUAD, he hopes that genetic analysis will "tell us something about the history of the date palm: when people started to cultivate them, and how they spread from North Africa all the way to the Indian subcontinent."
Date palms are extremely diverse; thousands of varieties are scattered from Morocco to Pakistan. Some varieties produce fruit that is extremely sweet; others have fruit that is quite bitter. Dates can range from yellow to nearly black. Some date palms can survive on water with high salt content; others are resistant to disease.
"We're trying to understand the genetic basis for this variation, because that will tell us something about the history of the species and how it is evolving," Purugganan said.
Understanding the genetic mutations that help some date palms survive under difficult conditions could also help to improve cultivation. "We're finding that the water in many parts of the region is becoming more salty. So we're trying to understand how to cultivate date palms under increasing salinity levels," he said.
Not all of the work happens in the laboratory. Purugganan and members of his team try to glean information about varieties by speaking with farmers and vendors at markets in the region. Traditional knowledge can enhance the project, but it can also be confounding. For instance, just about every country has a variety called medjool. But is the UAE's medjool genetically the same as the medjool of Iraq? Testing in the lab can easily answer this question.