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Evolution of wild wheat and barley and crop improvement: Studies at the Institute of Evolution

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Human civilization is based on agricultural domestication and cultivation. Evolution of crop plants from their hardy wild progenitors involved massive erosion of the original genetic resources, especially during modern agriculture, making the crops vulnerable and susceptible to abiotic and biotic environmental stresses. The wild relatives are the best hope for crop improvement because of their adaptive complexes to abiotic and biotic stresses. This is especially important in a world where the population and food demands are still increasing. Here, I briefly review the studies conducted at the Institute of Evolution, University of Haifa, during 1975-2007 on the ecological genomics and adaptive complexes of wild emmer wheat, Triticum dicoccoides, the progenitor of most wheat, and wild barley, Hordeum spontaneum, the progenitor of cultivated barley. We explored adaptive fitness components and genetic resources of wild cereal genotypes and populations in their center of origin and diversity in the Near East Fertile Crescent. Likewise, we established genetically and agronomically evaluated gene banks in situ and ex situ based on wild populations to safeguard precious genetic resources from disappearing. These include the unique population and species genetic structure and diversity, adaptive phenotypic and genotypic characteristics of salt-, drought-, and disease-resistances as adaptive complexes, as well as domestication QTL and chromosomal organization. These in situ and ex situ resources could be used for cereal improvement and offer the best hope for future breeding programs.

Affiliations: 1: Institute of Evolution and the International Graduate Center of Evolution, University of Haifa


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