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Darwin in the desert


DARWIN21 – a project in Saudi Arabia to engineer plants and to secure world food production


Five years ago, a 36-square-kilometer university opened its gates in the desert sands of Saudi Arabia – the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). KAUST is not only a university – it is an experiment and a dream made reality by King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who aims to stem the exodus of young, talented students from the kingdom and promote Saudi Arabia as a business hub. The 12.5 billion US dollar campus at the Red Sea coast close to Jeddah was completed within two years. Thanks to a generous donation, the university can afford competitive salaries, grants, state-of-the-art equipment and ambitious research projects.


One of these is DARWIN21 – a project shaped by EMBO Member Heribert Hirt. At the end of last year, he decided to move from France to Saudi Arabia to give his research a head start and fulfil a long-standing wish. “KAUST promised to get my idea rolling and get the community on board.” The scale of his undertaking shows parallels to the great voyage of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century only DARWIN21 explores life in deserts. The aim of the project is to visit arid regions to collect and analyse rhizosphere microbes. Why in deserts? Because deserts exhibit the harshest conditions of drought, salt and heat that plants are exposed to. Here, selection has shaped the interactions between plants and microbes for thousands of years.


Previous studies have shown that the ability of a variety of plants to adapt to stress conditions appears to depend on the association with rhisophere microbes. But can all plants improve stress tolerance when associated with their appropriate rhizosphere microbial partners? To answer this question, the Austrian scientist and his team launched a worldwide network of desert researchers and plan to build the world’s first heritage stock centre for desert microbes. The next step is to create a molecular database on rhisophere microbial genomes and their gene functions using the latest genomic analysis methods.


Hirt’s research results could be of major importance to agriculture as they provide a basis for the engineering of plants that produce higher yields or are more resistant to drought. If all goes well, the scientists could eventually help replant arid areas and thereby secure future world food production.


His laboratory has already set up collaborations with groups in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Namibia and Argentina. From several expeditions to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the scientists have gathered a collection of more than 700 endophyte strains. They started screening those on Arabidopsis and found several that help these plants to survive under stress conditions. Daniele Daffonchio, a new microbiology professor at KAUST, explores the properties of these microbes. Specialists from the Center for Bioinformatics at KAUST produce publicly accessible databases. Additional field trials with some microbial strains that passed the test with Arabidopsis are planned for autumn 2014 with wheat and barley.


“KAUST is an exceptional place to work,” concludes the 58-year-old after his first six months at the new institute. “It reminds me of a monastery where about 120 top researchers are concentrated with their teams in a small village of about four thousand people.” For Hirt, what counts even more is the intensive interaction between researchers, ample funding and the most modern technology that allows realization of projects that are impossible to do elsewhere.


INFO: International conference on “Root desert rhizosphere microbes for sustainable agriculture” will be held at KAUST from 3-5 November 2014.





Heribert Hirt


Heribert Hirt on a field trip to Jordan with Dr. Nida Salem from Amman University


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Tilmann KießlingTilmann Kießling
Head, Communications
T. + 49 160 9019 3839