The Institute of Evolution Wild Cereal Gene Bank (ICGB)

Evolutionary biology, genetics and genomics, domestication and crop improvement, in crop wild relatives of cereals.

Tamar Krugman, Curator of the Wild Cereal Gene Bank (ICGB)

Israel and the surrounding in the Near East Fertile Crescent, the region of old-world agriculture, served as an important center for the domestication of plants and animals which established the foundations for the development of human civilization. Wild emmer wheat (WEW), Triticum dicoccoides, wild barley, Hordeum spontaneum are excellent models of cereal crops wild relatives (CWR), for advancing research in plant evolution, population genetics and genomics, domestication and crop improvement. CWR offer a rich repertoire of beneficial alleles that can be deployed for crop improvement. Ex-situ and in-situ conservation and preservation of the extensive genetic diversity of crop progenitors can contribute to food security, especially in view of climate change and increased food demand caused by the continuous growth of the world population. About 20% of world plant diversity is under threat due to rapid processes of urbanization, habitat over-exploitation and degradation. It is widely accepted that CWR harbor genetic diversity that can potentially improve the crops nutritional value, productivity, and resilience to biotic and abiotic stresses; however, their diversity is often missing and poorly represented in gene banks. Therefore, the preservation of genetic diversity of CWR in gene banks around the world is of primary importance.

Gene banks vary greatly in terms of their scopes, some of them collect, preserve, and catalogue biological material, while others maintain active research programs that generate pre-breeding materials and valuable knowledge for further research and plant breeding. The main objectives of the Wild Cereals Gene Bank (ICGB) at the Institute of Evolution (IOE), University of Haifa, are to collect, preserve, and exploit the unique and rich gene-pools of wild cereals from Israel as the basis for active theoretical and applied research.

The ICGB, established in the mid 70’s by Prof. Eviatar Nevo, harbors extensive collections of more than 18,000 accessions of wild cereals, including WEW (6,025 acc.), and wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum) (5,915 acc.), the prime progenitors of cultivated wheat and barley, distributed along the Near East Fertile Crescent, with centers of origin and diversity in north Israel and Golan Heights. Most of the collections originated from diverse ecologies in Israel and surroundings, in the Near East Fertile Crescent, including Turkey, Iran, and Jordan. The collection also includes 10 Aegilops species (1,910 acc.) which belong to the secondary gene pool of cereals, and two species of Brachypodium (1,750 acc.).

Wild Cereals in Nature, near the sea of Galilea

The ICGB collections originate from individual plants collected in natural populations across Israel along aridity gradients, occurring from north to south and from west to east, and in local microsites with variable (or contrasting) ecological factors. Thus, the collection sites vary greatly in terms of climatic (rainfall, temperature and humidity), edaphic (soil types), and topography (altitude, slope) variables. Hence, these collections represent wild cereals adapted to a wide range of habitats and eco-geographical conditions at macrogeographic (regional) and microgeographic (local) scales. The collection is reproduced and maintained at the ICGB.

Collection and preservation of wild emmer wheat and wild barley by the ICGB researchers


The unique gene pools of cereals were studied for their genetic adaptation to plethora of biotic and abiotic (a/biotic) stresses. Our studies identified regional and local genetic patterns which are partly or largely adaptive at the protein and DNA levels, both at coding and noncoding genomes, correlated with and predictable by environmental a/biotic stresses. The wide genetic diversity of these unique gene pools can be further exploited for crop improvement by identifying

Wild wheat and wild barley

novel genes and alleles, contributing to increased grain protein and mineral content, disease resistance, and drought resistance. These genetic resources are uniquely and particularly important for advancing agriculture and food production, in view of the decline in genetic diversity of the cultivars and their increased susceptibility against environmental stresses. The new science of ecological genomics was particularly emphasized in the IOE publications, which highlight the intimate relationship of ecological stresses and genetic and genomic adaptive complexes (reviewed by Krugman et al., 2018; Israel Journal of Plant Sciences, 65, p.129-146. 2018).

In February 2020, the ICGB joined the international efforts to maintain and preserve crop genetic resources for future food security. The ICGB deposited first box containing 300 accessions of WEW from Israel, in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity

The prime minister of Norway, Tamar Krugman, and Souad Khalifa from the ICGB, at the Seed deposit ceremony at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway February 25, 2020

Important publications

The wide and extensive research conducted during the last 40 years at the IOE, resulted in more than 330 publications in leading international journals. Among these publications, it is worth mentioning the cloning of the high grain protein gene, Gpc-B1, from wild emmer wheat (Uauy et al., Science, 2006; 314:1292-1301); the cloning of the wild emmer wheat gene Yr36, conferring resistance to stripe rust disease of wheat (Fu et al., Science, 2009; 323, 1357-60); the assembly of physical map for chromosome 1BS of wheat (Raats et al., Genome Biology, 2015; 14: R138); The WEW (Zavitan) whole genome assembly that was published by Avni et al., Science, 2017), and the cloning of the wild emmer wheat gene, Yr15, conferring resistance to stripe rust which have led to the discovery of a new protein family termed as “tandem kinase-pseudokinase (TKP)” protein family (Nature communications, 2018; 9, p.3735). In addition, the exciting genomic analysis of 6,000-year-old cultivated barley grains, discovered in a cave on the cliff of the Masada Horst facing the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert, highlighted the domestication history of barley (Macher et al. Nature Genetics, 2016; 48, 1089-1093).

Nevertheless, it seems that most of the rich genetic resources of wild crop relatives from Israel are still untapped and await their efficient exploitation and utilization for crop improvement, advance modern agriculture and food production, in a continuous effort to safeguard the future of humankind.

From the model to reality – Our dream is about to come true!

The new home for the ICGB

A new home for the ICGB is currently built at the University of Haifa. The construction of the new home for the gene bank is supported by the generous donation of Lady Barbara and Sir Mick Davis, Prof. Alfred I. Tauber, Co-Founder of the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation, and supported by University of Haifa and Israel Science Foundation (ISF) grants.

Beginning of construction 1st May 2020