Resident Expert: On Dates

Michael Purugganan, principal investigator of the 100 Dates! project at NYU Abu Dhabi's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology (CGSB), talks about this iconic fruit of the Middle East.

All about dates, the iconic fruit of the Middle East, with Michael Purugganan, principal investigator of the 100 Dates! project at NYU Abu Dhabi's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology (CGSB).

Could you give us a brief explanation of the 100 Dates! project?
The project aims to uncover valuable information on the origins and traits of date palms by sequencing the genomes of 100 date varieties. By doing so, we will develop the base of scientific knowledge of this culturally and economically significant crop.

What is the regional significance of dates?
The date is probably the most important food crop in the Arabian Peninsula. It is a high-calorie, high-nutrition fruit that is easily preserved and that can be grown in the desert oases — ideal for the region!

What are the trademarks of dates originating from different countries?
The one obvious difference is color. Yellow-colored fruit seem to be more common in North Africa, while people in the Arabian Peninsula and the adjacent regions seem to prefer the darker-colored varieties.

Which are generally considered to be the very best dates?
It is generally felt that dates from Saudi Arabia are the best, but I think each country has great date varieties.

You've probably tried quite a few types of dates in your field of research. Any favorites?
I particularly like Sukari dates from Saudi Arabia. They are sweet and soft.

Tell us something we might not know about dates.
The oldest archaeological remains of date palms were found on Dalma Island in the UAE.

How have dates evolved since their domestication?
We still don't know the answer to that. In fact, it's something we are exploring here at the CGSB. We do know that there is a lot of diversity in dates, including fruit color and sugar content, and we think these evolved based on how certain groups preferred their dates.

What's next for the 100 Dates! project?
We hope to begin mapping genes for different traits, including survival in adverse conditions. We have collaborations with UAE University in Al Ain, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, and other groups in the region, Europe, and the US who are helping us answer these questions.

Michael Purugganan is also an NYU New York Dorothy Schiff Professor of Genomics and professor of Biology. He is a leader in the field of the evolutionary and ecological genomics of plants and his lab concentrates on the evolutionary forces that impact plant developmental networks in reaction to local environment.