Widad Aljuhani – PhD 2015

My research explores the genetic and morphological diversity of Saudi Arabian date palms.

A date palm grove in Saudi Arabia

A date palm grove in Saudi Arabia

Dates are a key crop and cultural icon of Saudi Arabia.  My PhD project is to identify date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) cultivars grown in Saudi Arabia, and to detect the confusion in nomenclature intra-cultivar, funded by the Ministry of Higher Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Phoenix dactylifera L. fruits have a high nutritional value while being a very important crop in the Middle East and Africa. There are about 5000 date cultivars worldwide but Saudi Arabia is the second largest producer, with more than 450 cultivars. There is a need to unify the naming of varieties formally and scientifically, in the respective countries, to ensure consistent nomenclature, as well as the importance of conservation of their genetic diversity, and recording of them before extinction. Discrimination among closely related date cultivars is extremely difficult; the first attempts were based on the morphological characteristics of fruits, usually not possible until fruiting (5-7 years), often influenced by environmental conditions, and changes during the growing stages. However, vegetative characteristics are more reliable in distinguishing between date palm varieties, and were less affected by environmental conditions.  Recently, there has been an increase in DNA fingerprinting applications.

Fruit of two contrasting date varieties

Fruit of two contrasting date varieties

This project includes extensive collection of samples of fresh palm leaves and fruits, access to different regions and imaging palm in the field. A combined study of morphological characteristics and genetic analysis for the data of these strains is being carried out using modern molecular techniques and preparation of an electronic key based on this data.

During my previous studies in the biological sciences and plant diversity I received training on field trips, which enriched my experiences, helping me to endure hardship and challenges that I had during sample collection and the study of palm in its natural environment; in dry areas and under harsh climatic conditions in the oases and desert.

A fruiting inflorescence of a Saudi Arabian date palm cultivar.

An infructescence of a Saudi Arabian date palm cultivar.

The study at the University of Reading provided me with a good environment in which to participate in scientific seminars, follow useful courses and make contact  with experts in my field, all of this has helped to enrich my scientific background. In addition, my membership of some scientific societies; such as The Genetics Society and Date Palm Friends Society have been extremely rewarding.

Recently I have been developing and screening new gender specific markers using the genetic map of Mathew et al. 2014.

My hope is to contribute to the conservation of genetic strains of these varieties, registration of the unique patterns, helping to establish a library of their genetic information.