100 Dates! Project Wins Prestigious Prize

Image of a date tree.

The 100 Dates! Project, led by Michael Purugganan, has won the Khalifa International Date Palm award in the category of Distinguished Researchers and Studies. Purugganan and his team, which includes NYU Abu Dhabi Postdoctoral Associates Khalid Hazzouri and Jonathan Flowers, were honored with the prize for carrying out a full genome sequencing of 62 varieties of date palms local to areas stretching from North Africa to Pakistan.

The goal of the 100 Dates! Project is to learn more about the genetic diversity of the date palm, which will help researchers understand how date palms evolved. This work will also help to provide tools for improving the cultivation of this plant that is so important to the UAE and to the region.

“We catalogued all of the mutations and other changes we saw in the genomes of these varieties. This molecular diversity is very important, because it tells us something about how date palms evolved, but it is also the first step in mapping important genes that may be useful for date palm breeding,” explained Purugganan, who is Dorothy Schiff Professor of Genomics and Dean of Science at NYU New York.

Similar genetic analysis has been done on other crops, like corn and rice. But this is the first project of its scale carried out on the date palm. 100 Dates! is part of the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, a group that employs cutting-edge techniques and technology at NYUAD to preform "deep sequencing" by analyzing an organism's DNA and RNA.

"We are a relatively small team," Purugganan noted, "and Khaled and Jonathan did much of the research and analysis. But this project, which was led by NYUAD, was part of a large collaboration that involved colleagues at United Arab Emirates University, and scientists in the US, Qatar, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, France, and Pakistan."

As the project progresses the team hope to learn how date palms evolved and to locate and identify important genes that are responsible for certain traits, like a plant's ability to survive on water with a high level of salinity.