By Andy Sambidge
Saudi university gives financial support to project to boost date production.
Forests of date palms growing in arid desert could become a reality if a fledgling business venture being pioneered at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia is successful.
Raju Thupran, a landscape engineer at KAUST, hopes to produce drought-resistant date palms on a commercial scale and is being backed with funding from the KAUST Seed Fund Programme.
The project is of considerable significance to Saudi Arabia, the world's third largest producer of dates.
Thupran also plans to produce palms that can thrive when irrigated with seawater or are resistant to the red palm weevil, a pest that kills off date palms and causes the trunks to break, Saudi Press Agency reported.
He is one of eight applicants awarded a total of almost $1m in the first round of this Economic Development Department initiative.
Thupran said in comments published by SPA: "When I travelled in the region I noticed in some areas date palms growing without any irrigation, the trees just survive," he said. "No one is irrigating them and they are not rain-fed, there are no rains.
"Those particular date palms have an ability to withstand drought. So we will identify these palms and try to identify the genes that are responsible for drought tolerance. If we succeed we could produce small plantlets and eventually we would be able to plant these date palms in drought areas without the need for irrigation - they would survive on their own from the available rainwater.
"You cannot say this is a forest species but still you'll get something that is similar to a forest if we plant these date palms together. We could bring forests to the desert, and this has never been possible before."
Thupran plans to send out survey teams to bring offshoots from palms back to the laboratory where the drought-resistance genes can be identified.
The same methods would be used to produce saltwater-tolerant trees and palms that are resistant to the red palm weevil, he added.
Thupran's funding will be paid out in installments over the next three years as he reaches a series of milestones.
The Seed Fund Programme offers finance and support to students, faculty and staff at KAUST who wish to develop their ideas and discoveries into commercial ventures.