Israel Environment Bulletin Winter 1997-5757, Vol. 20, No. 1

ISRAEL’S GENETIC HERITAGE

Israel’s location in the Mideast heartland of genetic diversity for many major agricultural crops, coupled with its remarkable geographical and climatic diversity, have helped create a particularly rich collection of habitats and corresponding local varieties. In fact, Israel is considered to be one of the world’s richest areas in progenitors and relatives of domesticated species. In light of spreading urbanization, habitat destruction, intensive farming and the almost universal use of elite cultivars by farmers, the preservation of Israel’s wild genetic riches is an imperative. Therefore, the scientific protection of these precious genetic resources has been accorded priority on the national level.

Israel has one of the largest and most accessible collections of wild wheat, barley, oats, and legumes in the world, as well as a wealth of wild fruits and other important crops such as Alliums. Many contain genes which can improve protein content, disease resistance, insect resistance, salinity and drought tolerance, and other traits. From the time Aaron Aaronsohn, the discoverer of wild emmer wheat in the Galilee in 1909, was invited to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Israel has played an important role in the international activity on genetic preservation. Today, Israel is an active part of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) network and has nominated a National Scientific Board. In fact, every second year, IPGRI sends 20 of its Third World fellows to Israel for training in the preservation of wild genetic resources in situ.

THE ISRAEL GENEBANK

Israel’s exceptionally rich plant genetic resources and advanced scientific and biotechnological expertise combine to create unique opportunities for genetic preservation, characterization, utilization and commercialization. In fact, Israel was one of the first countries to respond to growing awareness in the 1970s of the need to preserve genetic diversity. The Israel Genebank for Agricultural Crops (IGB) was established in 1979 by Israel’s National Council for Research and Development (now the Ministry of Science) and the Ministry of Agriculture as a central focus for Israel’s highly decentralized plant genetic resource efforts. Today, these two governmental bodies, along with scientists from academic institutes and Israel’s seed industry, are working together on the formulation of a policy on the preservation and sustainable use of Israel’s genetic resources.

The principal responsibilities of the IGB are: to maintain active and passive germplasm collections, herbaria, gene parks and genetic reserves; to facilitate national and international exchange of plant material; to maintain a database and information network; to promote national and international cooperation and coordination; to organize and participate in workshops, conferences and training activities; to disseminate information; and to guide research on gene bank activities such as dynamic in situ conservation methods.

The IGB supports four distinct strategies for genetic preservation:

* ex situ conservation whereby seeds are kept in genebanks for 10 to 20 years at low temperatures (around -20( C) and periodically checked for viability and mutations;

* field plots and botanical gardens for plants which aren’t suited for cold storage such as bulbs and roots;

* gene parks where fruit trees are grown for preservation;

* in situ conservation, in which wild species and relatives of domesticated crops are preserved in their natural habitat.

The IGB headquarters office, its base collection, its database and its computer facilities are located at the Volcani Center of the Agricultural Research Organization at Bet Dagan. The base collection holds over 20,000 accessions of indigenous varieties and land races as well as material from other Mediterranean countries, with over 1500 new accessions added annually. The IGB collection has its own refrigeration, equipment, laboratory, quarantine facilities and grow-out fields. Most plant genetic resource related research is done in Israel’s seven major universities and institutes and in the Agricultural Research Organization, in regional research stations and in public and private companies. Following is a partial list of the organizations which currently take an active part in the IGB network:

* The National Clonal Repository which maintains plants, trees and rootstocks in vegetative storage at the Mattityahu Experimental Station;

* The National Herbarium of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dating back to the university’s founding in the early 1920s, is the only collection of its size in the eastern Mediterranean. Two-thirds of its 500,000 specimens were collected in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions.

* The Allium Gene Bank at the Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University is an internationally renowned collection of vegetatively-propagated, short-day-adapted Allium species.

* Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Cereal Crop Improvement is the largest of the many major and minor private collections in the network and includes 20,000 (mostly wild) accessions of Israeli cereals and 2000 worldwide accessions.

* Haifa University’s Institute of Evolution’s in-situ and ex-situ gene banks focus on the genetic resources of wild cereals (barley and oats).

* The Weizmann Institute of Science maintains a significant ex-situ collection of Triticum species.

* Ben-Gurion University’s Center for Desert Research at Sde Boqer has a sizable collection of arid-land plants, which are resistant to salinity and drought.

IN-SITU CONSERVATION

Israel has long been aware of the need for comprehensive in situ conservation as evidenced by its national park and nature reserve system and its nature conservation policies and legislation which date back to the 1960s. In addition, the IGB coordinates and cosponsors, with the Israel Ministry of Science (MOS) and the Ministry of Agriculture, a wide variety of in situ conservation studies. Most importantly, it has pioneered the concept of dynamic gene preservationpreserving genes in wild interacting populations rather than by the static preservation of seeds. The plants continue to crossbreed, forming new combinations, but the genes themselves are preserved, as long as the overall system stays in a roughly steady-state equilibrium. Israel’s landmark studies on dynamic in situ conservation in wild wheat populations have drawn considerable international attention.

Many species of wild progenitors of cultivated plants still exist in Israel and can be used to make cultivated plants resistant to new diseases and adapted to changes in the agricultural environment. It is estimated that some 30 species of wild progenitors of food plants have survived in natural habitats in the Mediterranean part of Israel. Although they occupy fairly limited areas, most maintain high levels of genetic diversity. The wild plants in their natural habitats are continually exposed to the changing environment and their genetic constitution is incessantly molded by the forces of natural selection.

For example, for over a decade, a multidisciplinary team of Israeli scientists, with support from the USDA and MOS, have been studying the genetic diversity and population dynamics of wild emmer wheat on a hilly slope near Ammiad in the Eastern Galilee. Each year, samples of wheat seeds are collected every 3-4 meters along four transects. These are grown in experimental plots and tested for biochemical markers, disease resistance and other gene-related traits. Differences are carefully noted and correlated with the highly-localized soil, water, topographic and ecological conditions at each collection site. Results have shown that the wild wheat genes are not spread randomly across the terrain. Groups of genes exist as stable clusters or complexes associated with specific geographical features, such as north-facing slopes. These results will help guide future Israeli and international efforts in the realm of dynamic gene preservation.

ON THE INTERNATIONAL FRONT

Israel is also participating in a landmark initiative launched by the European Union to foster the advancement of the Middle East peace process while conserving genetic diversity in the region, known as the Peace Campus Project. With the participation of partners from Italy, Egypt, Israel, Germany and the Palestinian Authority, the project aims to formulate strategies and to devise approaches for conserving genetic resources in reserve areas throughout the region. Plans call for the development and testing of methods for maintaining two categories of plant genetic resources (wild relatives of crop plants and primitive cultivars) within two types of protected parks that house either dynamic, naturally reproducing plant populations or static, living collections of horticultural cultivars. In Israel the study is focusing on the ongoing program of monitoring a native population of wild emmer wheat in Ammiad and on establishing a living collection of deciduous fruit tree clones, such as apple, fig, pomegranate and table grape, rescued from old mixed orchards and vineyards on the verge of abandonment. As a final part of this second project, the scientists will complete an ongoing survey of old fruit trees in all regions of Israel. Clones of selected stocks in their inventory will be cleaned of disease, propagated vegetatively and grown in a fruit-tree gene park in the north of Israel in conjunction with the Galilee Biblical Fruit Tree National Park planned by the Jewish National Fund. Local varieties of trees and plants found in the Bible, with particular adaptations to climate, soils, pests and diseases, have been chosen for planting in the park.

The Ministry of Science, in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture and other organizations, is making special efforts to preserve the genetic treasures Israel has inherited. Israel’s exciting experiments with in-situ conservation are especially appropriate for developing countries since, on the one hand, specific conditions such as refrigeration and dryness are not required and, on the other hand, some of the risks of ex-situ conservation, such as adverse effects on vitality and mutations, are avoided. Israel has reiterated its long-standing commitment to share its expertise in plant genetic resource research, preservation and utilization with all other countries. Only through such all-encompassing cooperation can it maximize the benefits of its unique genetic heritage to all humankind.

Genes contain biochemical programs for constructing and operating all living beings. It is now up to us, as living beings, to take the necessary steps to assure that the rich genetic diversity which was handed to us is passed on to future generations.

Acknowledgment: The material for this article was graciously provided by Dr. Miriam Waldman, Head of the Agricultural and Environmental Division of the Ministry of Science. The information is based on a number of MOS and Ministry of Agriculture publications, including the Israeli Country Report on Plant Genetic Resources which was submitted to the United National Food and Agricultural Organization in Preparation for the 1996 International Conference and Programme for Plant Genetic Resources.