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Meena Antony
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Qatar seeks to lead world in date palm research

Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) has partnered with the Qatar Ministry of Environment’s Biotechnology Center to launch the Date Palm Research Program, which they hope will make Qatar the world leader in date palm research. Four years ago, WCMC-Q researchers, led by geneticist Joel Malek mapped a draft version of the date palm genome. This helped the team to identify the gene sequences responsible for sex in the tree. This could potentially increase yield by 100% – since only the females of date palms, which are dioecious, can bear fruit. The gene families responsible for fruit quality are next on Malek agenda to help breeders improve the varieties of date palms. The new programme has received seed funding of US$4.5 million from the Qatar National Research Fund over five years to set up. It will rank up basic, applied and human health research into dates and date palm. The researchers are hoping that, in the future, the progamme leads to the establishment of a Qatar Institute of Date Palm Research. Dates, the sweet fruit of date palms, are a staple food in the Middle East. Historical evidence show date palms have been cultivated there as early as 6,000BCE. Malek says this research is particularly interesting because no one region in the world is focusing on date palms, which are an important regional resource for the Middle East. “We have a great team of scientists assembled for this project from a broad set of backgrounds. The joining of local and international expertise will ensure that project stays focused on the needs of Qatar and the region while bringing the latest technologies to bear on challenges in date palm biotechnology.” What we aim at now is to translate our basic research know-how into real-world applications, said Karsten Suhre, director of metabolics at WCMC-Q.
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