Status and prospects of biotechnology in the Near East and North Africa

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Major trends and prospects of biotechnology applications
Status of biotechnology in selected countries
Activities in ICARDA for the application of plant biotechnology
Potential and limitations of appropriate biotechnologies for the Near East region
Strategies for biotechnology development main challenges
FAO's programme on plant biotechnology

I. Y. Hamdan
FAO Regional Office for the Near East, Cairo, Egypt


V.M. Villalobos
FAO Plant Production and Protection Division


Recent advances in biotechnology provide good opportunities for immediate benefits to developing countries. The innovations made in biotechnology applications include the development of micropropagation systems for many plant species and of new plant varieties with highly desirable characteristics; the manipulation of genetic material and its cloning into other organisms; and the production of genetically engineered plants that are resistant to viruses, insects and herbicides. Additional biotechnological innovations were made through fermentation technology producing many human and animal health products, as well as food and feed ingredients. Biotechnological advances were further extended to the treatment and utilization of liquid and solid wastes. These developments could have wide applications in agricultural production and environmental protection. Most of the biotechnological innovations and commercial applications have occurred in developed countries where much of the expertise is concentrated in the private sector, thereby restricting developing countries' access to patented and proprietary technology. However, some technologies can be easily transferred for practical use in developing countries through training, extension and research and development programmes.

Most countries in the Near East and North Africa are in arid and semi-arid zones and are characterized by severe weather conditions, lack of fresh water and widespread soil erosion. As a result, viable agriculture to produce food of both plant and animal origin is strictly limited and is below consumption levels. Since the population is expected to double in the next two decades, the countries in this region face a food supply problem of some magnitude. They already suffer from a low standard of living, inferior quality of food, poor health and weak economies. This clearly indicates the need of these countries to gain access to the new advances and products of biotechnology. In order to achieve this goal, a long-term programme should be established for the generation, transfer and development of biotechnology to the Near Eastern countries. Major components of this programme will be the development of trained personnel, the strengthening of research and technology transfer facilities and the establishment of international and regional collaboration in the field of biotechnology.

This paper analyses the major trends of biotechnology in the region as a whole as well as in individual selected countries; then examines the prospects of strengthening biotechnology in conjunction with conventional technologies; and finally, it outlines the strategies for the promotion of biotechnology in the region.

Major trends and prospects of biotechnology applications

The main challenges facing the Near Eastern countries are related to food supply and conservation of resources. Using biotechnological approaches, different resources can be utilized by: increasing soil fertility through biological activities; increasing food production through genetic manipulation and plant cell culture; biological waste water treatment; and bioconversion of waste for food and feed ingredients. Most biotechnological activities present in these countries are limited to traditional methods to serve their needs, i.e. industrial fermentation, soil microbiology and bioconversion of waste.

There are various sources of raw materials for fermentation in the Near Eastern countries. Huge quantities of hydrocarbons and methanol are found in oil-producing countries, whereas carbohydrate by-products (molasses) and lignocellulose waste (cardboard, paper) are found in most countries. Agricultural and forest residues generated in some countries (Morocco, Turkey, Yemen, Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic) are considered renewable resources that can be utilized by biotechnological means for the production of food, feed, fertilizers and fuel.

The majority of these countries have established traditional fermentation industries, i.e. (the United Arab Republics, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, the Syrian Arab Republic and Egypt); baker's yeast production (The Syrian Arab Republic, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt); methanol and acetic acid production (Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, Lebanon and Egypt); and acetone, butanol and citric acid (Egypt). Fermented dairy products' plants have been established in all countries.

Most of these countries have established biological treatment plants for sanitary waste water and have utilized the treated waste water for landscaping and agriculture. However, there is still a need for more research and development to adapt and optimize treatment technologies, to upgrade the quality of treated effluent and for proper management of sewage sludge.

In 1982, the production of dates in the Near Eastern and North African countries accounted for about 73 percent of total world date production (1.9 million tonnes). Iraq and Saudi Arabia were the leading producers, followed by Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and the Sudan.

The date-palm produces, in its long lifetime, relatively few offshoots which are suitable for transplanting. Vegetative micropropagation through tissue culture is therefore a promising technique for multiplying elite, high-yielding and disease-resistant trees. The results obtained in Saudi Arabia as well as in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have shown that in vitro micropropagation can be very successful. However, future research is needed to overcome the difficulties related to early flowering and lack of uniformity of the cloned plants.

It is particularly important to create date-palm clones resistant to the disease caused by Fusarium wilt, which is threatening the palm groves in Morocco. In the date-producing Arab countries, high-quality dates are still imported even though domestic production exceeds consumption. In these countries, the application of tissue culture techniques to improve date-palm varieties, coupled with progressing, packaging and marketing efforts, would lead to major changes in their capacity to export high-quality dates.

A limited survey on the application of biotechnology that included 11 Arab countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian Arab Republic, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen) was conducted by the Arab League

Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) in 1990. Survey results were analysed by the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology in Egypt. The salient features of this survey were as follows:

As regards plant production, most countries that responded to the questionnaire adopted tissue culture techniques to improve plant production, in addition to conventional methods of plant breeding. These countries are cooperating with international organizations for the adoption of advanced plant biotechnological techniques: Iraq is cooperating with FAO, the Syrian Arab Republic with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Egypt with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Arab Emirates and Qatar with Japan. Plant biotechnology was listed by several countries (Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Kuwait and Tunisia) as one of the priorities in their future plans for producing salt, heat and drought-tolerant plants. In addition, a high priority was to free plants from viruses utilizing tissue culture techniques.

The survey did not provide enough information for biotechnology application in livestock and fish production thus reflecting the lack of interest of the countries in these fields. Saudi Arabia was interested in improving local breeds of camels and poultry. Some laboratories were adopting embryo culture to improve local breeds of cows. The Animal Production Research Institute (APRI) of the Ministry of Agriculture in Egypt is adopting methods for improving animal production through embryo transfer technology.

Some activities related to animal health were reported from Egypt and the Sudan. The Animal Health Production Institute (AHRT) and the Veterinary Serums and Vaccine Research Institute in Egypt were cooperating with FAO and international institutes in Finland and the United States in combatting brucellosis and other animal diseases. Biotechnological methods are being used for the production of vaccines in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Agricultural Research Project (NARP). In addition, investigations to produce diagnostic methods were being undertaken.

Very limited activities were reported on the use of biotechnology in fish production. Some studies were planned on the use of biotechnology and genetic engineering for improving fish production in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia.

Biotechnology activities related to soil fertility and the utilization of agro-industrial wastes were reported from Egypt, Morocco, the Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Saudi Arabia.

Status of biotechnology in selected countries


After independence in 1962, successive governments have had to search for means to increase food production and reverse the downward economic trend. The population increase, combined with soil erosion and drought, have put a heavy burden on efforts to reform the agricultural sector. In the 1980s, more than two-thirds of the cereals consumed were imported. The government intends to develop self-sufficiency in cereals. More than any other country, Algeria depends on imports of durum wheat. This dependence on cereal imports is reflected by the focus of several biotechnology projects which have been implemented under government auspices. Both the National Institute for Agricultural Research and the Department of Plant

Production breed wheat and barley. Currently, these institutions also use various biotechnology approaches to look for alternative sources of protein, such as potato and chickpea.

The Department of Animal Production focuses on the protein content of straw for livestock feed.

Grapes, olives, citrus fruit and dates are important sources of export revenue. Production and prices have, however, become very unstable in recent years. The exception is dates, on account of local consumption. Biotechnology research focuses on micropropagation of the date-palm varieties Deglet-Nour and Taker-Boucht, which are resistant to Fusarium wilt disease.

Basic biotechnology research is mainly carried out at the Houari Boumedienne University of Science. In the microbiology laboratory efforts are concentrated on the molecular genetics of Bacillus thuringiensis and studies of mitochondrial DNA on yeast.

The relationship between universities and commercial breeding companies is still in a state of evolution, the only successful undertaking so far has been a programme for potato micropropagation supervised since 1989 by the Institute for the Development of Vegetable Crops.

In 1988, plans for future biotechnology research were formulated by the High Commission for Research. Five priority areas were identified:


In Egypt, biotechnology activities were initiated in the early 1950s when infrastructure construction began and several research activities were planned and set up. The government showed its interest in providing support to biotechnology by offering to host one of the principal laboratories of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB); this culminated in the agreement that Egypt would establish an affiliated ICGEB biotechnology centre with the Academy of Scientific Research Technology (ASRT) as the principal liaison institute. The academy established a national biotechnology committee in 1984; since then, research in plant biotechnology has been carried out in different institutions. The Cell Research Section of the Agriculture Research Centre (ARC) in Cairo became the Biotechnology Centre of the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1990, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to create a

National Agricultural Genetic Engineering Laboratory (NAGEL). The main research objective of NAGEL is to apply genetic engineering and tissue culture for transfer of desirable traits such as tolerance to salt and drought and pest resistance in the major crops. ARC also established the commercial production of inoculants such as Rhizobium, and developed efficient methods for recycling agricultural wastes such as cane bagasse, beet molasses and maize and rice straw. Tissue culture is used for micropropagation of strawberries, asparagus, potatoes, bananas, some ornamentals and date-palms. Preliminary research is being conducted on somatic embryogenesis and some clonal variation for genetic improvement.

At the National Research Centre (NRC), a Division of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology was established with the following departments:

Tissue culture techniques are used in rice improvement at the Rice Research and Training Centre in Sakha. Research is being carried out on another culture and embryo rescue to overcome sterility in indica x japonica crosses, fixing inherited traits such as protein content and starch characteristics and generating variability.

Research on the use of the biofertilizers to increase rice yields in Egypt has demonstrated the beneficial effects of the blue-green algae, Cyanobacteria, for rice growth and yield increase. Algal supplementation has been found to reduce the need for inorganic nitrogen by 30 to 50 percent, and to maintain soil fertility and gradually improve the content of soil organic matter. Another major advantage of this biofertilizer is the ease with which it can be produced, stored and distributed. The Ministry of Agriculture has set up a programme for the production of sufficient Cyanobacteria inoculum, to cover an area of about one million feddans (400 000 ha).

At the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Ain-shams, a Microbial Resource Centre (MIRCEN) was created in 1978 as a component of an international network. The Cairo MIRCEN was to serve various aspects of environmental microbiology in the Arab countries and in North Africa. A Unit of Biofertilizers was established as part of the Cairo MIRCEN in 1980. Its activities include: the isolation and collection of suitable native microorganisms for the production of biofertilizers; the study of interactions between these microorganisms and their host plants' supply of inoculants such as legume inoculants, Cyanobacteria, associative nitrogen-fixers, Frankia and mycorrhizae.

Egypt's biomass potential is about 23 million tonnes of agricultural residues and 4.88 million tonnes of animal waste. One-third and one-tenth of the fuel requirements of rural Egypt are met from crop residues and animal droppings, respectively. If proper technology is applied to convert biomass into biofuel, the same energy requirement could be met and consequently, an additional 910 million tonnes could be diverted to animal feed. Biogas technology was sought as an effective means to convert agricultural biomass and animal droppings into biofuel and manure; a research programme initiated in the 1950s on an experimental scale has grown into an ambitious one through the FAO-sponsored project "Biogas for Rural Population". Several small-scale plants have been set up in different regions to study their socio-economic implications.

Of the various wastes used for biomass production, rice straw is one of the possible applications; some 50 percent of the rice straw (over 1 million ) is now available for composting and biogas production. The declared objective is to use much more rice straw for the production of biogas, along with the promotion of this technology in Egypt.


Biotechnology applications in Iraq include soil fertility (nitrogen fixation and waste) using yeast strains in a mixed culture with Trichoderma viride, water microbiology, enzyme technology, genetic engineering and cellulose conversion. A research and development programme for Single-Cell Protein (SCP) production at pilot plant level started in Iraq in 1982. The production of SCP from methanol, using local and imported strains of Hansenula polymorpha and Candida utilis, was investigated. The research plan included an economic feasibility study and the assessment of technological and nutritional aspects of SCP under local conditions. Another pilot plant was established to utilize date syrup for the production of baker's yeast and SCP. However, these two plants are suffering from a lack of experienced personnel and from managerial problems. In Iraq, appreciation of the value of biological nitrogen fixation is well documented. Interest is concentrated in newly introduced crops such as soybeans and the adaptation of legume cultivar-Rhizobia strains in saline habitats. In 1970, a factory for the production of baker's yeast from sugar-beet molasses was established, with plans for the production of 300 tonnes annual of dried yeast and 300 tonnes of compressed yeast. However, only 50 percent of the planned production achieved owing to the various problems that face this industry, especially in dried yeast production. Since 1980, only compressed yeast has been produced.

The antibiotic industry in Iraq started in 1970 for the production of penicillin and tetracyclines; however, penicillin production was stopped only after nine months. On the other hand, tetracyclines production continued until 1980 with a production of 18 tonnes per year. It was later stopped for economical and technical reasons. The involvement of research and development programmes could have a positive effect for restarting this bioindustry in the future.

In view of the importance of the date-palm in Iraq, a tissue culture laboratory was established in 1979 at the Agriculture and Water Resources Research Centre in Baghdad. Another laboratory was initiated at the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Scientific Research Centre for the improvement of plant production. Tissue culture laboratories were also established at the Universities Basra and Mosul and at the Ministry of Agriculture. The latter was in collaboration with FAO through the regional project for date-palm in the Near East and North Africa. The major objective is the commercial propagation of plants derived from in vitro techniques. Some of the species are potatoes and fruit-trees.

Research at the Faculty of Agriculture and Biology in the Nuclear Research Centre is concentrated on the study of asexual embryogenesis techniques and the induction of mutations by mutagenic agents. Date-palm propagation by tissue culture is also being implemented at research institutions and universities in Baghdad and Basra. Other species such as lettuce are propagated by tissue culture at the Department of Biology of Mosul University.


The first Arab Conference on Biotechnology was held in Jordan in 1989. As a consequence of the meeting, the Higher Council of Science and Technology of Jordan plans to establish a National Council for Biotechnology that will be responsible for all research and development in this field. Two committees have already been installed, one for food and agriculture and the other for medical and pharmaceutical aspects.

Research activities conducted in Jordan in plant genetic improvement apply mainly to conventional plant breeding methods and the evaluation of new introductions of cereals. Emphasis is on germplasm utilization of wild cereals such as Triticum dicoccoides. Cereal genotypes that can give good yields under severe climatic conditions are of primary importance for Jordan as well as for other Near Eastern countries.

The second Arab Conference on Perspectives of Modern Biotechnology was held in Amman, Jordan in April 1993.


Kuwait has been closely monitoring international developments in biotechnology in order to apply some of these techniques to the country's needs. It hosted one of the first workshops, promoted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), on the establishment of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). As a result, Kuwait has developed a national plan for biotechnology and genetic engineering in the sectors of health care, petroleum, agriculture and fisheries. Its primary objective is to optimize the local resources through biotechnology and genetic engineering to benefit the country.

Most research in biotechnology and development in Kuwait is conducted at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) and at Kuwait University. Research activities are carried out according to national priorities as requested by the organizations concerned. The major activities include industrial fermentation, waste treatment and plant biotechnology.

Single-cell protein (SCP) from hydrocarbons

KISR started a multidisciplinary research and development programme for developing SCP for animal feeding. The most important achievements of this programme were the establishment of pilot research facilities, training of personnel, the nutritional assessment of available commercial SCP products and the isolation of several methanol-utilizing bacterial cultures that can grow at temperatures above 40° C. Four methanol-utilizing bacteria strains were purified and classified as novel strains of the genus Methylophilus - one strain had optimal growth at 48° C. A process for producing SCP in large quantities by utilizing one or more of these strains in an optimized aqueous mineral medium was successfully developed. The KISR SCP programme investigated a milk replacer for Arabian lambs and dairy calves at the commercial farm level under Kuwaiti conditions that was found comparable to commercial products.

Lignocellulose fermentation

Kuwait generates lignocellulosic waste amounting to more than 250 000 tonnes per year, of which 100 000 tonnes of cardboard is from commercial and industrial centres. Bioconversion of lignocellulosic wastes to Protein-Enriched Fermented Fodder (PEFF) by acidic or enzymatic hydrolysis, followed by the production of microbial biomass from the hydrolysed cellulose product, has been studied. The biomass product was mixed with residual lignocellulose to produce PEFF. Another approach studied was the direct conversion to PEFF through the combined activity of cellulose- and lignin-decomposing fungi, either by liquid or by solid-state fermentation. Results indicate that, by applying solid-substrate fermentation, the cardboard can be converted within six to eight weeks to PEFF with 15 percent protein and rich in minerals. The addition of yeast with moulds to the liquid fermentation has improved the utilization of degraded cellulose, giving a product with a higher protein content (18 percent).

Algae production

Studies on the production of algae for feeding fish have been carried out to explore the use of an algal solar cell that can harvest solar energy and produce biomass for use as a feed additive. Optimization studies for algal culture productivity have also been carried out with different growth parameters such as temperature, culture depth, water quality, nutrient concentration and light quality. A high-intensity biomass system for algae production has also been developed. The algae are used as feed for rotifers which are used to feed fish.

Waste-water treatment

KISR began a research and development programme in 1980 on the treatability of industrial refinery waste water in the Shauaiba area, using a set of integrated unit operations. These were: a physical-chemical treatment system for the removal of oil and chromium; and a bacterial nitrification-denitrification process to remove ammonia and residual carbonaceous material. A pilot plant was established to test the process with the treated water being used to irrigate selected crops. The main contributions of these studies were the characterization of major water flaws in the different industries and the design of a central waste water treatment facility that includes a biological treatment system; this technique was adopted and implemented by the government. An algal-bacterial pond system for municipal waste water treatment was tested under Kuwaiti conditions. A pilot plant containing facultative and high-rate algae ponds was established to study the efficiency in pollutant removal and algal productivity. The system was found to be effective in reducing pollutants to meet the criteria for irrigation. Algae were successfully separated from treated waste-water effluent and used as a soil conditioner.

Genetic engineering

In the near future, recombinant DNA techniques will be used for the development and adaptation of RFLP methodology for determining genetic stability and varietal characterization of tissue culture-derived date-palms. Also, recombinant DNA technology will be used to develop salt-tolerant plants suitable for the Kuwaiti environment. It is also planned to use genetic engineering techniques for the development and improvement of bio-insecticides for the control of plant pests. This will have a considerable impact on the agricultural and horticultural output. DNA-based molecular diagnostic techniques will also be used for early detection of plant and animal diseases.

Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

A tissue culture laboratory was established in 1985 in the Regional Agricultural Research Centre in Fazan District. Since work began, the laboratory has been mainly involved in date-palm propagation to obtain drought- and disease-resistant varieties. Plantlets have been produced in vitro and hardened for transfer to soil. Biotechnology activities, mainly tissue culture, will be extended to other crops in the near future. At present, some experimental research is being conducted on potato and other crop species.


Cooperation has been established between the different services of the Ministry of Agriculture involved in tissue culture techniques and with the growers' association. Such relationships have become more stable since increasing numbers of farmers are requesting more tissue culture-derived plants of potato, citrus, strawberry, banana, pineapple and date-palm. In view of the use of tissue culture techniques, disease-free plant material that was previously imported is now being produced locally by established private laboratories, and other new facilities are to be created in the near future. Furthermore, because of low labour costs in Morocco and the absence of taxes on farmers' revenue, many foreign corporations are investing in this area. The private sector is willing to finance some public research programmes and, in return, wants to receive the exclusive right to market the improved or new biotechnological product. In this respect, legislation on intellectual and property rights has to be proposed for Morocco as well as for the rest of the countries of the region. At present, private companies produce virus-free planting material for sweet potatoes and grapes, whereas commercial propagation is used for bananas, olives, pistachios, plums, jojoba and verbena.

Three institutes are involved in research on biotechnology in nitrogen fixation. Since 1988, scientists have been carrying out research on nitrogen fixation by grain legumes, studying the impact of several parameters such as soil acidity, water stress and iron deficiency. The research has recently been extended to subterranean clover and to actinorrhizian trees such as Casuarina. The main objective of this research is to contribute to raising the yields of grain legumes while decreasing the inputs of inorganic nitrogenous fertilizer. It should also contribute to the reforestation programme with nitrogen-fixing trees. In the long term, the aims are to continue with the selection of the best Rhizobium and Frankia strains, and optimize the protocols for the in vitro micropropagation of superior Casuarina genotypes.

Cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Third World Academy of Sciences has focused investigations on the optimization of wheat rotation. Since 1987, special emphasis has been laid on nitrogen-fixing trees such as Acacia and Medicago.

Research at the Soil Microbiology Laboratory of the Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II (IAVH II) is concentrated on: the ecology of Rhizobium spp. in different soils of Morocco; the characterization of the natural populations of Rhizobium spp.; the diagnosis of the need for inoculation of the main grain and fodder legumes; and the introduction of new nitrogen-fixing trees such as Leucaena leucocephala (in collaboration with the Forest Department).

In Morocco there are about 5 million ha of forest which serve not only as a protection against desertification but also for the production of cork and timber from cedar, oak and fir. Recent investigations in tissue culture resulted in the plant regeneration of the "argan" (Argania spinosa) tree from callus cultures. Research is also conducted on in vitro propagation of other endemic species from the southwestern semi-arid and arid regions of Morocco; native trees could be propagated in vitro. This will be an outstanding contribution to the reforestation of these regions, resulting in the domestication of this species and the improvement of income for the local population.

Plants produced in Morocco by tissue culture are exported to Cote d'Ivoire (banana), Mali (date-palm) and the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (banana and citrus). Morocco is also gaining a reputation as a regional focus for research and training in agricultural biotechnology. The Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II in Rabat plays an important part in this.

With a core of well-trained scientists coming from French-speaking African and Arab countries, IAVH II is directly involved in the training and transfer of these technologies at the regional level. Post-graduate short training courses, sponsored by international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), are organized in the field of soil microbiology and nitrogen fixation for scientists and technicians from the Arab and African countries.

Research at IAVH II concentrates on the selection of drought-tolerant barley lines using tissue culture and conventional breeding techniques, such as crosses between different genotypes, in vitro screening for drought-tolerance, interspecific crosses such as Hordeum vulgar with Hordeum bulbosum, and haploid embryo rescue.

IAVH II has signed an agreement with the USAID - sponsored Tissue Culture and Crops Project (TCCP, Colorado, USA) for training, staff exchange and collaborative research. A similar agreement was signed with the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Germany). Another collaborative project on the date-palm, for controlling the "Bayoud" disease, is implemented by IAV's tissue culture laboratory at Agadir and Purdue University, Ind., USA. Furthermore, a four-year collaborative project is being carried out by the three Maghreb countries, with the assistance of the European Community and a French laboratory, to enhance the in vitro propagation of the date-palm and to develop Bayoud-resistant clones with a high fruit quality.

Saudi Arabia

According to FAO estimates, the growth rate of Saudi agriculture during the period 1980 to 1986 was a record compared with the average for countries of the region. The Kingdom crossed the stage of self-sufficiency in most of the basic foodstuffs and began exporting wheat, dates, vegetables and eggs. In December 1987, a national seminar on genetic engineering and biotechnology was held in Riyadh, sponsored by the King Abdlaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and UNIDO, in collaboration with King Saud University (KSU). The seminar recommended the setting up of a National Biotechnology Advisory Group (BAG) with the participation of governmental agencies, industry and universities including the Arab Gulf University in Bahrain. The main tasks of the BAG were to initiate and coordinate a National Biotechnology Programme, to develop a biotechnology information base for Saudi Arabia and to organize training workshops on recent advances on biotechnology, while promoting interaction between various disciplines and industry.

In 1989, KACST selected 28 priority research areas, of which three are directly related to biotechnologies. These are: genetic improvement of local strains of domestic poultry; genetic improvement of local Arabian camel breeds; and development of local varieties of wheat and barley using the already selected lines.

Additional priorities were: the application of biotechnologies to enhance oil recovery; the recycling and control of oil wastes; and the processing of hydrocarbons into chemical compounds and products with added value including microbial biomass proteins. Most of the research, however, is still concentrated on date-palm production using tissue culture. The main biotechnological activities related to plant production are conducted at the Date Palm Research Centre (DPRC) at King Faisal University, Hofuf. Other tissue culture activities for date-palm propagation have been established at King Saud University in Riyadh and at the Ministry of Agriculture and Water. In January 1993, the Third Symposium of Date-Palm was held at King Faisal University, Hofuf.

Syrian Arab Republic

In the Syrian Arab Republic, some fermentation industries are well established, such as baker's yeast and ethanol. About 65 000 tonnes of beet molasses are produced annually and are considered the main carbon source for baker's yeast and ethanol production. In 1984, the production of baker's yeast was 13 220 tonnes and the production of ethanol was 2 360 tonnes. There is also a fast-growing pickling industry for vegetables and olives. Plant biotechnology in the Syrian Arab Republic is limited to the application of tissue culture techniques for micropropagation of Vicia faba using various explants and media formulations. At the Faculty of Agriculture of Aleppo University there is a programme for virus elimination in potato tubers using apical meristem culture. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), based at Aleppo, has conducted some activities in plant biotechnology.


Most activities in biotechnology in Tunisia have been brought under the National Plan for Biotechnology. The plan focuses on food industry, agriculture and health. A National Commission for Biotechnology coordinates the research conducted at the National Centre for Biotechnology (NCB), the Pasteur Institute, the Faculty of Sciences, the National Institute for Scientific and Technological Research, the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Tunisia (INRAT) and the National Institute for Agriculture in Tunisia (INAT). An important output of the national plan has been the creation in 1983 of the National Centre for Biotechnology. Scientists involved in biotechnology are working on the micropropagation of date-palm and potato. For these crops, a large-scale propagation programme is underway. In addition, research is currently being carried out on the production of Iysine for livestock feed, biogas and the transformation of barley starch or wheat bran for sugar production and baker's yeast.

INAT's personnel have wide experience in tissue culture, particularly for virus-free plant production. The technique is currently applied to potato, artichoke, strawberry, citrus and ornamental species. INAT collaborates with agricultural development institutions to scale up the process to the commercial stage. At INAT, crop breeding also relies on plant biotechnologies, especially to obtain stress- and disease-resistant varieties of barley and wheat.

Research on biological nitrogen fixation is being carried out in several institutions. At INAT work includes the collection of nodules of fodder legumes at the early flowering stage with a view to isolating, purifying and identifying the Rhizobium strains and then growing them at the Unit for Inoculum Production. In the same institution, local Rhizobium strains of common bean and pea have been collected and tested for their symbiotic efficiency.

INAT also has a gene bank containing about 800 introductions and/or varieties of fodder and pasture legume species. Within this collection, research is carried out on the effect of Rhizobium spp. and Agrobacterium rhizogenes on the increase in root biomass and number of nodules in lupin and bean. Another area of research concerns the effect of phosphorus fertilizer on nitrogen fixation by medics and soybeans, and the effect of salinity and water stress on Rhizobium of Hedysarum carnosum (a legume which grows in semi-arid regions and on saline soils) and Medicago sp. In the longer term, the task is to isolate the gene coding for tolerance or resistance to drought stress and salinity, and be able to transfer it to other Rhizobium strains.

At the National Institute for Forestry Research, investigation has been carried out since 1983 on the improvement of nitrogen-fixing trees. Acacia cyanophylla is a fast-growing tree which is used for the production of fodder and wood, as well as for dune fixation along the seashore and as a windbreak.


Plant biotechnology research in Turkey began in 1973 at the University of Ankara; since then 18 plant tissue culture laboratories have been set up in Turkish universities and research institutions. At the University of Ankara research consists mainly on the use of tissue culture techniques for breeding vegetable crops and propagating fruit-trees and grapes. Other research in progress is on the biological control of plant pests using Bacillus.

Research in the Horticulture and Plant Production Departments of the University of Cukurova concentrates on in vitro propagation of different species including banana, citrus, tea, artichoke and strawberry. Haploid plant production by anther culture, the production of pathogen-free plants by meristem culture and some clonal variation for genetic improvement are also currently under investigation.

Activities in ICARDA for the application of plant biotechnology

The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (lCARDA), based at Aleppo, the Syrian Arab Republic, focuses on research efforts in dry areas. The Centre has a world responsibility for the improvement of barley, lentil and faba bean, and a regional responsibility in western Asia and North Africa for the improvement of wheat. chickpea, pasture and forage crops and the associated farming systems.

Recently, ICARDA initiated activities to study the application of biotechnology in the improvement of their mandate crops with the aim of either realizing objectives that had hitherto proved unattainable with the use of conventional research techniques or improving the efficiency and economy of current techniques. Once identified, the appropriate biotechnologies will not only be used at ICARDA but will also be transferred to NARSC (Dr Robert Booth, personal communication).

The objective of the strategic plan for biotechnology is to help ICARDA describe the factors affecting the implementation of biotechnology in general and how individual techniques have to be evaluated. The basis for the strategic plan was a detailed survey of the present status of biotechnologies in ICARDA.

The evaluation identified the following priorities in order of importance:

ICARDA is in the process of implementing its biotechnology strategy and their operational plan. ICARDA's ultimate goal is to transfer the technique to their respective counterparts. This initiative in biotechnology implementation is considered to be the best strategy to acquire and test new techniques and to integrate them into existing research projects once they have demonstrated their promised impact.

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