NYUAD Researchers Release New Date Palm Genome Sequence

The new study further uncovers the genetic basis for important fruit traits of an essential MENA region food source.

Researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and the UAEU Khalifa Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, working with other institutions, have developed an improved assembly of the genome for the date palm using long-read sequencing technology. This improvement over the current versions of the genome will help advance further research, and also inform the propagation practices of this essential MENA region food source.

In addition, the researchers have identified the genes and mutations that lead to color change and the levels of major sugars in date palm fruit, including the genes for the enzyme invertase that breaks down sucrose into glucose and fructose. The mapping of these fruit color and sugar genes was conducted using genome-wide association studies (GWAS).  GWAS has been used for mapping important disease genes in humans, and this is the first time it has been applied to date palms.

While date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) are one of the earliest domesticated tree crops in the world and remain a major fruit crop in North Africa and the Middle East, few genomic resources exist. This, combined with long generation times, has limited evolutionary genomic studies of this perennial species.

Researchers report they have produced an improved genome assembly for date palms that is 18 percent larger and more contiguous than existing genome assemblies. This long-read genome sequence assembly, coupled with access to two large, mature date palm orchards in the United Arab Emirates, allowed them to conduct genome-wide association mapping in this species. 

As a result, they successfully mapped the previously-identified sex determination locus and genes for both fruit color and sugar level polymorphisms. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

As we face challenges in food security for the future, we will need to continue to study the genome of food crops like date palm to help us in our struggle to provide food security in the world.

Michael Purugganan, lead scientist

“As we face challenges in food security for the future, we will need to continue to study the genome of food crops like date palm to help us in our struggle to provide food security in the world," said Silver Professor of Biology at New York University and lead scientist on the paper Michael Purugganan. "Our progress in expanding the genome of the date palm is finally unlocking some of the secrets that explain how this tree species has continued to thrive in varied, challenging ecosystems.”

Global Collaboration

The sequencing of the date palm genome and the first GWAS mapping in this fruit tree was an international effort led by NYUAD and KCGEB, and also included researchers in the US, Switzerland, France, UK, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico.

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly-selective liberal arts, engineering and science curriculum with a world center for advanced research and scholarship enabling its students to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from more than 115 nations and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.