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GMO-FREE REGIONS & PRODUCTS: On GE-free breeding activities inIsrael

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Fruits of their labors
SOURCE: The Jerusalem Post
AUTHOR: Laura Rheinheimer
DATE:   22.05.2007

Fruits of their labors

Luscious lychee. Since 1990, the yield has increased from 500 kg. to two
tons per dunam.
The festival of Shavuot is often referred to as the Festival of the
First Fruits because of the mitzva for farmers to bring the first yields
of their harvest to the holy city of Jerusalem. The ancient custom
celebrates native Israeli fruits such as grapes, figs, dates and pomegranates.

Today Israel boasts a medley of fruits from these biblical varieties as
well as new produce brought from exotic lands.

Biting into "Lemon-melon" one experiences an exotic taste of mango,
sweet and acidic. A project started 15 years ago at the Volcani
Institute, the melon is in its final stages of preparation and is
scheduled to be available in supermarkets within two years.

The "Tomaisin," a raisin tomato that dehydrates on the vine, was
developed in a classical breeding program using a wild species as a
donor for the dehydration trait, and has an intense taste much like
tomato paste.

A new variety of apricot that has yet to be named ripens as early as
late April - beating the common variety of the fruit by more than a
month - and should give Israeli farmers a lucrative advantage in local
and European markets.

Projects such as these are considered the ultimate success at the
Volcani Institute at Beit Dagan - the research arm of the Agriculture
Ministry - whose goal is to improve growing methods for Israeli farmers.
Researchers at the institute work to develop new varieties of fruits and
vegetables and solve some of the toughest problems facing agriculture.

One of the biggest challenges researchers at the Volcani Institute face
is how to breed new agricultural products without using biogenetic
engineering, the process of creating new plants by transferring genes
from different species.

"Most of our markets - mainly in Europe - are against genetically
engineered products," says Prof. Yoram Kapulnik, head of the Institute
of Plant Sciences at the institute.

This poses a problem for growers in Israel because, although transgenic
fruits and vegetables could provide some advantages such as protection
from viruses and delayed ripening, it would be inefficient to grow
unmarketable products, he explains.

"Pollen is difficult to contain," Kapulnik explains. Therefore, Israeli
agriculture is almost entirely free of genetic engineering, with some
exceptions where growers must apply for licenses to grow these
transgenic crops.

Despite this, significant research at the Volcani Institute is dedicated
to molecular biology and genetic engineering, as researchers anticipate
that transgenic foods will find a significant place in the market in the
future. One field of research is developing plants that are naturally
resistant to insect attacks, thereby allowing farmers to grow their
crops without using pesticides.

"We are trying to keep up with the most advanced research," says Dr.
Amnon Lers, a researcher in the Postharvest Science Department. Most
research, however, is conducted using traditional methods.

Much of the efforts at the Volcani Institute is directed toward
redeveloping ancient strains of fruits.

The Israel Gene Bank established in 1979 on the Volcani campus provides
an extensive collection of seeds for researchers to work with.

Its fruit tree collection consists of some 150 varieties of almond,
plum, peach, apricot and apple trees, plus clones of fig, pomegranate
and grapevine, originated from orchards and vineyards dating to ancient
Israelite agricultural systems.

Due to their biblical ties, fruit trees are assigned special
significance at the Volcani Institute.

"Of the seven species, five were trees," says Dr. Eli Tomer, the former
head of the Institute of Horticulture.

"There's an awareness of a connection to the land," says Dr. Ari
Schaffer, past head of the Vegetable Research Department, "even though
agriculture as a way of life isn't as common [today]." Ancient
Israelites enjoyed pomegranates, figs, almonds, dates, and even apples.
Modern additions to the flora of Israel include peach, citrus, new
varieties of apple, and more recently lychee, mango and avocado.

Mango and avocado, introduced to the country in the 1930s and not grown
for commercial use until the 1970s, have become a celebrated
agricultural success story. Agricultural techniques have allowed for an
early growing season, and the avocado and mango are exported to Europe
where they are in high demand.

Lychee, at first grown for noncommercial use due to its low yield of
around 500 kg. per dunam, caught the attention of Volcani researchers in
1990. They brought the trees' yields to a manageable yield of two tons
per dunam, mostly consumed domestically.

"You can't just bring trees from foreign countries and grow them here.
You need 10 years of research or more," says Schaffer, explaining that
non-native trees have to be optimized for the Israeli climate.

Mango, brought from India, has been bred to a succulent mild flavor,
sweet, smooth and fiberless fruit, which is more accepted in Europe's markets.

The "Naomi" mango, grown in the South, was developed by Tomer himself
and produces a heavy yield each year. The recently developed "Sheli"
mango has been planted on 2,000 dunams in the North.

"And there are more [strains] on the way," says Tomer.

Another exotic success is the guava, which was brought to the country
almost 100 years ago. While it was a hit on the domestic market, it was
impossible to export the guava because of its short shelf life and
strong aroma. However Volcani researchers took on the task and created a
mild-smelling, longer-life guava that was exported for the first time
last year. The first-time guava exportation was accepted by the European
market and growers expect an even higher demand in coming years for the
"King" guava.

ONE APPROACH used to develop new varieties is to look for ancient,
primitive and rare fruit and vegetable varieties with novel traits and
cross-breed them with modern plants using cutting-edge technology. These
ancient varieties are grown from heirloom seeds preserved in gene banks
around the world, and from clippings from naturally growing old trees.
By looking at ancient remains found at archeological sites, scientists
know which specific varieties were grown in biblical times.

"One of the strategies of agricultural research is to take the
progenitors and use them," says Schaffer. After an ancient species is
cross-bred with a modern variety, its traits are tracked using molecular
technology to produce a fast and efficient method.

The process takes a long time, he explains, and projects started decades
ago are just now beginning to generate results usable for the market.
It's not just a trial and error approach, he says; it's a very
calculated process using modern technologies such as molecular
strategies similar to those used in modern medicine. But while
traditional cross-breeding is time-consuming, this "intelligent
breeding" using modern techniques has streamlined the process.

The end results, some of which are made available for the public in
Hebrew language and agricultural publications, give Israeli growers new
commercial varieties to sell in domestic and foreign markets.

Tomatoes are another juicy example of the work done at the institute:
scientists brought in wild species and cross-bred them with the modern tomato.

Using classical cross-breeding, scientists have created one variety of
tomato with a high sugar content. They cross-bred wild types of
naturally sweet tomatoes found in Peru with modern varieties and were
able to transfer its sweetness to create the "Tasty" tomato.

The Volcani Institute is a vertically integrated operation that prides
itself on addressing problems from end to end.

In the case of the pomegranate, one of Israel's most beloved crops, the
institute developed a machine that deseeds the complex fruit, a
technology that could be used both commercially and by the end consumer.

But a tough examination of the marketability of the healthful
pomegranate, which contains high levels of antioxidants, showed another
problem: the plant flowers only once a year, which confines the season
to a short period. An ongoing research program in the Fruit Tree
Department is taking on this issue in an attempt to create a plant that
will blossom three times each year. Combined with storage techniques and
deseeding methods, researchers hope to enable Israeli farmers to tap
into the full potential of the fruit.

Ever adapting to new trends, another problem researchers at the Volcani
Institute are tackling is how to improve seedless varieties of grapes,
watermelons and other crops despite the fact that the fruits don't
contain fully developed seeds.

The answer lies in pulling together techniques similar to those used in
modern medicine to raise seed embryos in laboratory conditions. This
molecular strategy involves rescuing embryos from the soft tissue of
underdeveloped seeds and raising them under laboratory conditions.

"People really want to stick with the seedless fruits, and we can help
serve them," says Kapulnik.

The Volcani Institute boasts one of very few research centers with a
department dedicated solely to issues affecting fruits and vegetables
after they are harvested. The Postharvest Science Department addresses a
spectrum of issues: how the produce looks, packing and shipping methods,
and retaining healthy nutrients to keep up with high standards in the
European market.

"The atmosphere in which fruits and vegetables are put in after harvest
has an effect on them," says Lers.

Lers and other scientists are exploring methods to heighten various
fruits' tolerance to chilling techniques; there have also been
breakthroughs using non-harmful yeast to ward off fungi.

One project is focused on developing sophisticated plastic that would
create an ideal atmosphere to inhibit both ripening and decay. Dr.
Nehemia Aharoni, another post-harvest researcher, has collaborated with
an Israeli plastic company to create a material that "breathes in" ideal
amounts of carbon dioxide and oxygen. The unique performance of the
film, combined with elimination of condensed water inside the packaging,
prevents produce decay, which is useful for perishable fruits and
vegetables intended for long-distance shipping.

Even though the Volcani Institute's main focus is to improve agriculture
in Israel, the innovations and technology coming out of its laboratories
show benefits beyond the country's borders.

Volcani researchers work together with scientists in Morocco in a USAID-
funded project to improve the almond industry there. The country faces
decreasing species of almonds because of severe drought conditions and

"We established a project with our Moroccan counterparts to preserve
seedlings of almonds," says Sara Spiegel, associate director for
international cooperation.

The project also involved transferring virus-detection techniques from
Israel to Morocco in 2000, and introducing more efficient growing methods.

"Despite a lot of difficulties due to the political climate, it's done
very well," Spiegel reports.

"There's an exchange of information and an interaction between
scientists from different politically oriented countries. We really
became good friends."

Producing the future
The off-season advantage

Researchers at the Volcani Institute have developed a variety of quality
apricot that ripens as early as late April, beating the common variety
by more than a month. The research, headed by Dr. Doron Holland, should
give farmers a lucrative advantage in local and European markets. The
fruit boasts a long shelf life and tasty flavor, the institute reports.

Healthy amounts of anti-oxidants

Scientists at the Volcani Institute took a hard look at a new variety of
plum called the "Red Heart" developed by fruit breeder Sefi Ben-Dor, and
found that it contains very high levels of anti-oxidants compared to
other fruits grown in Israel. The study, headed by Prof. Joseph Kanner
of the Department of Food Sciences, showed levels of anti-oxidants in
the fruit were three times those of pomegranates, and five times the
levels found in apples, bananas and red wine.

Self-dehydrating vine tomatoes

A tomato project started 15 years ago identified the gene that causes a
certain type of tomato to actually dry on the vine. The "Tomaisin,"
raisin tomatoes that dehydrate and have a concentrated tomato taste,
were developed in a classical breeding program using the wild species as
a donor for the dehydration trait. The Tomaisins Company is producing
these natural vine-dried tomatoes and is currently being grown commercially.

"Once we understand the biology of this tomato, we can then begin to
think about what can make a grape lose its water to become a raisin,"
says Kapulnik.

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