Genetically enhanced hybrid peppers developed at the Hebrew University, which can be raised with minimal protection from the elements under moderate winter conditions, have achieved worldwide commercial success. The robust pepper varieties were developed by a research team headed by Dr. Yonatan Elkind of the Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture at HU's Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences in Rehovot. The research receives financial support from and is carried out in collaboration with the Zeraim Gedera company. For his work, Dr. Elkind was a recipient of one of this year's Kaye Innovation Awards, presented Tuesday at the university's board of governors meeting. The peppers' genetic improvements expand the ecological conditions under which they can be grown and also facilitate the use of simple greenhouses and netting instead of expensive structures. Produced in various colors, they have been raised to produce high yields under nighttime temperatures as low as 10 degrees Celsius, which is much cooler than previous hybrids, which demanded temperatures higher than 18 degrees via heating. The new hybrids are characterized by high yields, a long growing season, resistance to viruses, firm fruit, good vine storage capacity, long shelf-life and minimal cracking. The breeding project involved large-scale experiments with more than 25,000 plants a year, grown in target areas - mainly in the Arava and the south of Spain. Elkind noted that vegetable production under mild winter conditions and using simple plastic or net protection is one of the most rapidly expanding, protective cultivation systems worldwide. The major areas that use this production method, in addition to Israel and Spain, are Mexico and China. The hybrids developed by the researchers - which to a large extent have replaced seed varieties formerly imported into Israel from Holland - have been commercialized through Yissum, the Hebrew University's technology transfer company, and are sold worldwide by the Zeraim Gedera seed company. In 2005, sales of the hybrid seeds amounted to $9.5 million and are expected to increase. In the Arava alone, 50 percent of red pepper seeds used are those that were developed at HU and have contributed significantly to the profitability of farmers in that region. Overall, in the 2004-05 growing season, pepper exports from Israel amounted to $80m. and constituted the leading vegetable export from the country.