Date desert survival research receives international award

A team of plant and soil scientists have won an international award for their research that uses the latest imaging technologies to reveal how date palms grown in the desert manage to survive and thrive in severe conditions.

The University of Nottingham and research partner Saudi University KAUST were awarded the Khalifa International Award For Date Palm And Agricultural Innovation. The research teams will receive £250K in prize money which the UK team have elected to donate their share to further fund the ground-breaking equipment used in this study at the Hounsfield Facility.

The UAE Government has placed the establishment of a date production industry as one of its important priorities. Within this framework, the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation has been established to enhance and encourage agricultural innovation and research of date palm and the spread of this knowledge worldwide as well as the recognition and rewarding of those individuals and institutions that have contributed substantially to this field.

Desert survival

Desert plants have evolved different strategies to survive desert climate, but there is little research into how they do this. Date palm is one of the few desert fruit plants that are widely cultivated. It is an important source of food, shelter, fuel and fibre. Date palms tolerate heat, drought and high levels of salt in the soil.

The research team, led by Professor Ikram Blilou at KAUST and Professor Malcolm Bennett at Nottingham supported by Dr Craig Sturrock and Dr Brian Atkinson from the School of Biosciences, used the latest X-ray microCT imaging technology to examine how the date palm root develops over time and is able to survive in challenging desert conditions.

Nottingham researchers employed non-invasive X-ray microCT imaging to reveal (for the very first time) how a date palm root system develops over time. Our innovative CT approach, combined with anatomical and developmental analysis by KAUST researchers, discovered that date palm roots exhibits several very novel ways to grow, develop and adapt to the challenging desert soil environment. This prestigious award was given in recognition of the innovative approaches and novel biological insights reported in our paper about this very important desert plant.

Professor Ikram Bilou added: “This work is a result of a fruitful collaboration between my lab here at KAUST and the University of Nottingham, and this is just the beginning of a long term joint effort between the two teams to unravel desert adaptations. Using the cutting edge technology at the Hounsfield we have, for the first time, been able to highlight the unique features in date palm roots that help in characterizing the root system architecture in date palm.”

The Khalifa Award judges were looking for innovations, specifically for arid, desert regions that can be applied in the UAE and the Middle East. Dr Abdelouahhab Zaid, Secretary General of the award said: “The winners contribute to the development of the date palm sector and agricultural innovation worldwide.”

The winners will be recognised in a ceremony at the Global Forum for Innovation in Agriculture to be held in Abu Dhabi in March 2021.

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