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Israeli Scientist Seeks to Create Hardier Plant

February 7, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Jack Bershad (left) with Simon Barak, a molecular biologist who hopes to make agriculture more tolerant to harsh desert conditions.
As the effects of global warming continue to spread throughout the world, Israeli scientists -- and one, in particular -- hope that ongoing research will keep agricultural crops growing despite the possibility of harsh conditions.

"[Global warming] doesn't just mean higher temperatures," said Simon Barak, a molecular biologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "It means unpredictable droughts, increasing salinization of soil and, of course, the acceleration of the inexorable spread of deserts."

When crops are exposed to extreme conditions, they can lose yield or even die -- unless they are stress-tolerant, something that Barak and his team at BGU may help to create.

Using an arabidopsis -- a small flowering plant -- as a "model," Barak has been able to change its gene structure to make it more resistant to heat. After exposing it to high temperatures, the scientist found that there are two genes that the plant "turns on" while it is under heat stress. By adding bacteria to a cell, he was able to inactivate those genes, making the plant more tolerant to heat.

"Plants do have within them the potential -- if we know how to manipulate their genes -- to turn a stress-[ridden] plant into a stress-tolerant plant," noted Barak, while speaking to a group of American Associates of BGU recently at the law firm of Blank Rome in Center City.

His research, and others like it, could have far-reaching implications. Barak claimed that by 2025, the world's population is estimated to reach 8 billion, creating a need for 40 percent more food growth.

"The question is: Where is all this food coming from?" posed Barak, who originally hails from England and made aliyah in 1990.

He noted that his research is still "years away" from creating stress-tolerant commercial crops, but could eventually get there with continued funding, research and biotechnology partnerships.

'Loss to Farmers'

The implications of his plant research will also be felt in Israel -- 60 percent of which is covered by the Negev Desert.

"In Israel and worldwide," he said, "60 percent of all crop losses are due to these stresses, so you can imagine this is representing a huge economic loss to farmers."

Barak lives and studies in Sde Boker, a kibbutz settlement in the Negev that was the former home of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who stressed the need to populate the Negev and make it bloom.

When questioned about the health risks of genetically altered plants, Barak said that they are perfectly healthy, noting that there are tight regulations on such crops, particularly in Europe. He even commended environmentalists for putting pressure on government regulators to make sure that no crops can be sent to market without being extensively tested.

With more that 100 million hectares -- or some 247 million acres -- of crops being grown by 10 million farmers in 22 different countries, Barak insisted that the industry is here to stay.

"We've been doing this for hundreds of years -- [we just called] it breeding," he explained. "Now, we can do it faster and much more targeted."

 

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