Climate change and population growth have agricultural experts throughout the world increasingly worried. In addition to the usual battles against pests and diseases, poor countries now face threats of food shortages, price spikes and the political instability those conditions can cause. Since the amount of land set aside for agriculture is limited, researchers are therefore eager to find new ways to boost yield, keeping prices down. And as part of that quest, scientists are increasingly turning to wild, non-domesticated wheat to search for useful genes that can be bred into commercial grain. Israel is a center for this new technology.
Despite its small size, Israel is home to many genetically diverse populations of wild plants. Wild relatives of crop plants are especially important because they contain genes that make them particularly well-suited to differing ecological settings; they are also more resistant to some diseases and grow in a variety of soil types. The genes that allow this flexibility were often lost during domestication, when genetic diversity was sacrificed so that plants cultivated for farming could take on standardized forms. Of the Israeli wild crops, wild emmer wheat, the progenitor of all domesticated wheat, is of particular interest because Israel is thought to be a secondary site (after Turkey) of wheat domestication: This is where wild emmer populations once mixed with domesticated strains. In addition, Israel is a hotspot of genetic diversity because four large regional botanic zones — the Mediterranean, the Great Rift Valley, the Saharo-Arabian desert and the Irano-Turanian ecoregions — converge here. These tracts support wild wheat populations that have adapted genetically to various ecological conditions, such as different soils and rainfall levels. By obtaining samples from various wild populations, plant scientists can access these wild plant genes and transfer them to crops of the same or even different species.
Today, Israel has repositories for preserving this wild wheat, such as the Israeli Department of Agriculture-funded Israel Plant Gene Bank, which stores wild relatives of crop along with thousands of non-wild samples. Another major repository for wild wheat is the Wild Cereal Gene Bank, which is housed at the University of Haifa’s Institute of Evolution and contains more than 3000 wild wheat samples collected mostly in Israel.
Jorge Dubcovsky, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, and the Institute of Evolution recently collaborated in the discovery of a high protein content gene. Dubcovsky used wild wheat from Israel to search for the gene, which can be bred into commercial wheat, producing a nutrient-enhanced cereal that could address serious protein deficiencies and improve infant nutrition in the developing world.