NYU Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) Center for Genomics and Systems Biology (CGSB) aims to uncover valuable information on the origins and traits of date palms by sequencing the genomes of 100 date varieties. The research team, which is developing a collaboration with UAE University’s Date Palm Research and Development Program, has already completed sequencing the first few genomes and hopes to sequence the next 30 by early next year.
The 100 Dates! project was initiated by NYU New York Professor of Genomics Michael Purugganan, who has extensive experience in the field of plant genomics, in an effort to develop the base of scientific knowledge of a culturally and economically significant crop from the region.
“Dates are of great importance to agriculture in the region, but we know next to nothing about them scientifically,” he explained. “Using genes to better understand this crop has huge potential for local farmers.”
Through developing an extensive database that identifies differing genetic changes across a range of date varieties, project researchers will also work to identify the genes that relate to specific characteristics, such as taste and yield — equipping bioengineers and farmers with important information to support the farming of dates with more desirable qualities.
The project will also aim to identify how to better determine date-producing (female) seeds from pollen donor (male) seeds. Currently, this differentiation can’t be made until six or more years after planting; however, the research team hopes that identifying reliable genetic markers for gender determination will help overcome this challenge and support more effective farming decisions.
The research team is also looking to determine the most likely center of origin of date cultivation through the sequencing of date varieties from across the world.
“We're sequencing varieties whose original sites of cultivation are spread across the region and beyond, so there are certainly candidate locations, but nobody knows the actual origin location,” Research Scientist at the CGSB Jonathan Flowers said. “This origin is usually discovered where the highest genetic diversity is found; when farmers and traders transported these initial seeds across the region, a smaller number of seed varieties were received, therefore there are fewer genotypes represented the further you get from the origin.”
“The database and resources we're developing are going to form the foundation for a number of longer-term applications that will dramatically change the entire industry,” he added.
In addition to the 100 Dates! project, the NYU Abu Dhabi CGSB is conducting genetic research on algae and their potential to be developed as a biofuel. The Center makes use of genomics, proteomics, imaging, and computational technologies to address biological questions at multiple levels of organizations — from cells and organisms to populations and ecosystems.