UA-Led $3.9M Project to Focus on Date Palm Production in Oman


University of Arizona faculty members are leading a new $3.9 million project to design and equip three newly constructed laboratories and train employees in the facilities that will be focused on date palm production in Oman.

The Central Date Palm Laboratory, or CDP Lab, will be the nucleus of the One Million Date Palm Trees Project, a top priority initiative for economic development in Oman. The project is of particular interest to the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said, whose government is funding the CDP Lab project.

Date palm production extends deeply into the cultural history of Oman, a semi-arid country on the southeastern coast of the Arabian peninsula. The One Million Date Palm Trees Project aims to increase the production of dates, a versatile and nutritious fruit that is included in a wide variety of food products. Through the project, the Omani government is seeking to increase the use of desert land for sustainable date production, including through irrigation with reutilized, treated wastewater.

The CDP Lab will include facilities for tissue culturing, a form of biotechnology that enables the protection of high-yield crops against damage from insect pests, and viral or bacterial diseases. Plant production will focus on generating a diverse set of date palm varieties with genetic compositions that are best adapted to the different soil and climatic conditions found in Oman.

Additional laboratories will focus on horticulture, plant protection and biochemistry, including food products research and development.

The CDP Lab will initially employ UA research scientists, who will train and transfer leadership of the research facility to Omani scientists over a three-year period. 

"We are particularly excited about the opportunity to work with Omani scientists in the process of setting up this facility," said Jon Chorover, UA professor and principal investigator on the project. "Much of the research conducted there will be of direct application to other desert regions of the world where this crop is grown, including in the Southwestern U.S."

Faculty members with expertise in systems engineering, plant biology, biochemistry and plant pathology from across three units in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will participate. They include Chorover, Jim Walworth and Leif Abrell in the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, Barry Pryor and Glenn Wright in the UA School of Plant Sciences, and Kim Krumhar in the UA Department of Nutritional Sciences. 

"Working across disciplinary boundaries is essential when we seek to solve real world problems, and land-grant universities like ours are especially well-suited for this kind of project," Chorover said. "The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in particular and the University of Arizona more generally have very permeable boundaries between departmental units, and we tend to do our best when we work together."

The project will also benefit from the architectural engineering expertise of Ralph Banks in the UA Office of Planning, Design and Construction, as well as Todd Shallcross in the UA Office of Research, Discovery and Innovation.

The CDP Lab project was originally envisioned in 2013 and was jointly restructured as an "offset" project in January 2017 by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Global Research Alliances, a unit within the UA Office of Research, Discovery and Innovation.

"Under the UA's Offset Initiative, the university has a concentrated effort to develop sponsored collaboration opportunities, allowing faculty to implement scientific projects that leverage the UA's knowledge and technology base with new partners in multiple countries," Shallcross said. "By doing so, we can directly extend UA’s global network of partners."

"The University of Arizona has a longstanding relationship with our valued partners in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf states," said Brent White, vice provost for global affairs and dean of global campuses at the UA. "This project will enhance these relationships and, more importantly, spur scientific discovery that will positively impact Oman and people worldwide."

A symbolic signing ceremony took place in Oman on Dec. 19. Shallcross, and Hassan Hijazi, director of Middle East relations, programs and outreach for UA Global, represented the UA at the ceremony.