December 7, 2003, Updated September 12, 2012

‘Scientists now have more knowledge of plant biology than ever before in the history of plant science.’Hunger is the greatest cause of death in the 21st century, with lack of vitamin A contributing to the deaths of at least a million people each year. The problem of hunger will likely be exacerbated in the future, with alarming statistics projecting a growth in the world population from 6 billion to 10 billion by the year 2050.

A new weapon in the fight against world hunger is the new modern multi-million-dollar Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Science and Genetics in Agriculture, at the Hebrew University Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality in Rehovot.

A recent international conference on “Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in the 21st Century: the contribution of Plant Biotechnology,” was held to mark the dedication of the new institute. The fact that world hunger is a problem that plant scientists in the 21st century cannot ignore, was a message that was repeated throughout the conference.

The bottom-line challenge, speakers at the conference noted, is figuring out how to get hearty, vitamin-packed, hybrid seeds to the poor farmer.

“Scientists now have more knowledge of plant biology than ever before in the history of plant science,” said Hebrew University Professor Arie Altman head of the new Smith Institute. Spurring the use of gene technology as well as traditional agriculture, he said, the new center is ready to take a lead role in solving the food challenges of the 21st century.

Altman noted that a growing part of the problem is the shrinking amount of land that available to cultivate. The challenge is not just to increase yield on existing land, he explained, but to deal with shortages of water, drought, problems of desertification, salinity, poisons caused by recycled water, and the ever diminishing availability of phosphates as a fertilizer.

Altman made a strong case for the study of the plant genome to open up new paths of research in agriculture.

“We cannot provide all the food needs by traditional methods. We have to combine traditional agriculture and genetic engineering for more, better, and healthier food. We should be able to make advances in plant science with knowledge of the plant genome in the same way that knowledge of the human genome has led to new advances in medical research,” said Altman.

The Smith Institute will encourage such interdisciplinary research. “With various disciplines under one roof, it is a fertile environment for brain-storming,” said graduate student Michal Ben Tzvi, at the dedication.

Four major areas of teaching and research are encompassed in the Smith Institute: Management and Interaction of Agricultural Plants with the Environment; Biotechnology and Biochemistry at the Cellular, Tissue and Intact Organism Level;
Genetics, Breeding and Genomics; Applied Ecology.

The new Institute thrusts Israel and the Hebrew University Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences into the forefront internationally as a center for plant research.

“It represents a turning point for Hebrew University and for world agriculture,” said HU President Menachem Magidor.” “There has been a revolution in the Life Sciences, and we have to get to the molecular level to have a major impact.”

Israeli scientists have long been on the front line of research in agriculture. The Hebrew U faculty has participated in 77 collaborative research projects with U.S. scientists. It has worked in 162 different countries, and helped to train agronomists from underdeveloped countries. Its scientists have developed drip irrigation, fertigation techniques, biological pest control, high yield fish ponds with recycled water and bacteria to ‘digest’ pollutants, disease-resistant, long shelf-life, tasty tomatoes, and many breeds of plants and flowers.

Israeli scientists have done impressive research using classic genetic breeding methods. Professor Daniel Zamir told the conference audience about the exceptional results he achieved when he crossed a green exotic tomato from Peru with a standard variety. Zamir searched the genotypes for traits (he found a self-pruning gene, that ensured that all plants would be ready for harvesting at the same time,) and did metabolic profiling. “Chromosome 7 increased the yield and the sugar content. The yield in the hybrid field was 120% higher than I would have imagined. It was perfect for sun-dried tomatoes.”

Some of the guest speakers – experts in their fields – reported on research in genetic engineering. Professor Zhi-hong Xu, President of Peking University in China, was emphatic regarding the need for high tech development including transgenic plants. “Who will feed China? Our demand for food will increase by 30% by the year 2030,” he said.

It is just one of the many problems the Smith Institute will be tackling in the coming years.

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Jason Harris

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