Israeli scientists develop heat-resistant apricot trees

The hottest August since thermometers were invented, seems to suggest climate change is upon us. At Israel's Agricultural Research Organization, better known as the Volcani Institute, scientists have been working for well over a decade on developing crop plants that will not only survive, but thrive, in hotter conditions.

If at first the Volcanites only thought about advancing Israeli agriculture, as the state of the planet became clearer, they realized that developing plants to survive in extreme conditions is a planetwide need, Dr. Doron Holland tells Haaretz. And in what could be a breakthrough for global farming, he and his team have identified a genetic mechanism that controls temperature sensitivity in the apricot. With that knowledge, the hope is that heat tolerance in other crop plants can be manipulated.

A better apricot
The Volcani institute does not engage in genetic engineering, not least because engineering food crops and transgenic food in general is a regulatory minefield in Israel. The scientists develop better apricots, or whatever, through a technique whose origin is lost in history: grafting.
With what do they graft said apricot trees? With local plants that are highly heat-tolerant. And, knowing the relevant genetic sequence means the developers don't have to wait for the plant to grow up and start proliferating before they can see if it has the desirable characteristics or not. Once the seed has sprouted, they can sample the plant tissue and determine whether the desired sequence is there.

Mutant peach
Support for their work came from South Carolina, where the team had a mutant form of peach that eschewed dormancy breaks entirely. The trees were not sensitive to the environmental temperature, Holland explains. The mutation turned out to be in the same area that the Israelis had mapped in the apricot.

Later a New Zealand group read the Israeli paper and showed that manipulating the genes the Volcanites had identified changed the cold requirements of kiwi. The fruit, not the bird.

They however were using genetic engineering, Holland says, mucking about with the genome to amplify the expression of the gene. "It's like using a 5-kilo mallet," Holland sniffs. "they caused over-expression of the gene, which is not good. Apparently, changes have to be made much more delicately."

Transgenic or grafted, today we already have more heat-tolerant apricots, peaches, kiwis and even some apples. Holland for one believes this is just the beginning. "We're going to see fruit and vegetables grow where they couldn't grow before," he predicts. Even wheat? Even wheat.

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