Specialist date palm research center is creating a gene bank for the humble fruit
Researchers at the Date Palm Development Research Unit (DPDRU) in the United Arab Emirates are planning to create a gene bank for 150 date varieties.
The center, part of the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), was set up in 1989 to lead and facilitate research related to date palm production in the country through the application of tissue culture techniques – an in vitro technique to mass propagate date palm varieties.
The introduction of a gene bank, says Moza Al Shamsi, head of the research and development unit at DPDRU, is the natural next step in the center’s overall strategy.
“We are planning to get all the varieties in one area and create a genetic bank here in our lab,” says Al Shamsi. “We are planning for 150 varieties, with a view of it being a reference, or a date library. We will focus on the UAE varieties – which range from khlass and khenizi to Fard and LuLu – and will work in collaboration with the Khalifa Center for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology (KCGEB).
The genetic bank will complement the center’s existing processes, such as finger printing, whereby the center retrieves the leaves, reads the profile and stores the information for future reference.
To date, the DPDRU has produced and distributed one million date palms of 65 varieties, and grows 60,000 to 80,000 plants per year as a result of plant tissue culture.
Al Shamsi explains the process behind the technique: “We start with the mother plants – in the UAE we have more than 200 varieties. We then gradually take off the outer leaves and roots until we reach the heart of the date plant – we call this the meristematic tissue. We take it to the lab, sterilize it and then the tissue culture technique will begin.
“The first stage, the introduction stage, may take from one to two years to produce the buds that we need to propagate the date palm. As soon as we have the buds, we move to the second stage, which we call multiplication, so we multiply the buds. The third stage is the elongation stage where the buds are subcultured on another medium to induce their elongation and produce the aerial part without a root system. When they reach 10 to 12cm in height, these young plantlets are subcultured into a rooting medium. Finally, the fourth step is the rooting phase.
“At the rooting stage the leaves will produce the roots. When the emerging plantlets are strong enough, we transfer them to the greenhouse. After around one year in the greenhouse, you can take the plant to the fields.”
When compared to natural date palms, which are a common site across the UAE, Al Shamsi says plants derived from the date palm tissue culture have myriad benefits, including a greater survival rate, rapid growth, early ripening and high yield. Additionally, they are disease and pest-free and they do not need a lot of water since they are well rooted. The greater survival rate is because of the well rooted system, there is no relation between that and the low need of water.
The tissue culture option also produces the fruits earlier – three years after planting – and will produce more fruits. Moreover, it provides consistency for farmers. “With the offshoots from tissue culture you can make sure that they are the same age so you can receive the fruits at the same time,” explains Al Shamsi, before concluding: “Another advantage of the tissue culture is the date palms are small size so you can move them from place to place easily, from country to country.”