New Worlds: Wild wheat found near Negev

First major discovery related to wild wheat in over a century announced by Tel Aviv University.

wheat 88 (photo credit: )
wheat 88
(photo credit: )
The first major discovery related to wild wheat in Eretz Yisrael since Zionist agronomist Aharon Aharonson found specimens of this seminal strain at Rosh Pina a century ago has been announced by Tel Aviv University. Dr. Eitan Mlat and Dr. Ya'acov Menistrasky of TAU's grain research institute, with Weizmann Prof. Moshe Feldman and Dr. Sergei Wallace of Ben-Gurion University, have discovered wild wheat in the Yattir region south of Mount Hebron. This is the first time this primal wheat has been identified so far south in the country, inviting further genetic and ecological research. Wild wheat is the "mother" of most cultivated strains around the world, and constituted an important source of food. The researchers noted that the Yattir region is arid, and on the edge of a desert. The discovery of the wheat's spread to an area considered unsuitable for wheat growing suggests the potential of raising grain in wastelands. The Rosh Pina discovery brought Aharonson international fame, helping him raise money in the US for the establishment of an agricultural experimental station at Atlit. During World War I, he and his family organized Nili, a secret intelligence group to aid the British. But he was killed in an airplane crash over the English Channel near the end of the war. The wild wheat he found served as the basis for understanding of the genetic composition of wheat strains. It is studied today at TAU's institute for grain research and other places in Israel and abroad as a source of genes to improve cultivated grains. BRINGING THEM HOME The brain drain of promising young Israeli scientists is serious. But with the support of a generous donation, the Israel Science Foundation has launched the Morasha program for young researchers in the natural sciences who, on completion of their doctorates and post-doctorates, haven't yet returned to Israel. The Legacy Heritage Fund of New York and Jerusalem has established the program to honor the late Bella and Harry Wexner, who set up one of the world's major retail conglomerates (The Limited). Four male and one female scientist who return to Israel with the foundation's help will be hired by Israeli universities and enabled to establish state-ofthe-art labs. Not only will the young scientists be provided with an unprecedented level of research support, but they will also get the most sophisticated equipment available. Supplied with all the research tools they need from the outset, they will be free to focus on the important research they do. GETTING IN TOUCH The Ministry of Science and Technology has suffered a swift turnover of ministers since it was established by the late Prof. Yuval Ne'eman (when Menachem Begin was prime minister), who served twice as science minister and later was chairman of the Israel Space Agency. It is again without a full-time minister, now that MK Ophir Pines-Paz quit. But it has managed to get funding from the European Union to establish a Web portal for scientists who want to visit Israel or are already here. Run by Ilana Lowy, the site is at Israeli universities are working together to create a showpiece on scientific opportunities for visiting scientists, and a place where their special needs for information can be met. STONE-AGE DNA A detailed analysis of Neanderthal DNA provides a unique insight into the genetic changes that accompanied the transition from early hominid to modern man. The study, reported recently in Science, paves the way for a Neanderthal genomesequencing effort. It helps to explain the evolutionary relationship between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), and marks "the dawn of Neanderthal genomics," wrote the study's authors, who work at the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory, the US department of energy, the University of Chicago and the Max Planck Institute for evolutionary anthropology in Germany. They analyzed over one million base pairs of DNA from a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal fossil found in Croatia and compared the results against human and chimpanzee genomes. The research suggests that Neanderthal and human genomes are greater than 99.5% identical, which leaves less than 0.5% of the Neanderthal genome at the center of attention. Many of the biological differences between modern humans and Neanderthals will be encoded at specific sites, which is why the researchers were able to analyze enough data without having to sequence the entire Neanderthal genome. The results point to the fact that Neanderthal and human DNA diverged about 500,000 years ago. The data also suggest that the effective population size of the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals was similar to that of contemporary humans. This means that earlier hominids such as Neanderthals may have expanded from small populations, just as modern humans did. In the most thorough study so far of the Neanderthal genome, the scientists suggest an early human-Neanderthal split. The two species have a common ancestry, say the authors, but don't share much else after evolving their separate ways. The study also finds no clear evidence of interbreeding (genetic mixing) between Neanderthals and humans. "Humans went through several key stages of evolution during the past 400,000 years," said study co-author University of Chicago human genetics Prof. Jonathan Pritchard. "If we can compare human and Neanderthal genomes, then we might identify what the key genetic changes were during that final stage of human evolution. While unable to definitively conclude that interbreeding between the two species of humans did not occur," Rubin said, "analysis of the nuclear DNA from the Neanderthal suggests the low likelihood of it having occurred at any appreciable level."