Genetically enhanced hybrid peppers developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that can be raised with minimal protection under moderate winter conditions have achieved worldwide commercial success. Pepper is one of the major vegetable crops in the world and in Israel.
The robust pepper varieties were developed by a research tem headed by Dr. Yonatan Elkind of the Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture at the Hebrew University'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 is a recipient of one of this year's Kaye Innovation Awards, to be presented at the Hebrew University's 69th Board of Governors meeting on June 13.
The genetic improvements embodied in the peppers they have developed widen the ecological conditions under which they can be grown and also facilitate the use of simple greenhouses and netting instead of expensive structures.
The peppers, in various colors, have been raised to produce high yields under night-time conditions as low as 10 degrees celcius, which is much lower than previous hybrids that required temperatures higher than 18 degrees celcius and needed costly heating to grow and develop.
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 low sensitivity to cracking.
The breeding project involved large-scale experiments with more than 25,000 plants a year, grown in target areas, mainly in the Arava region of southern Israel and the south of Spain. Dr. 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 which 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 developed at the Hebrew University, 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 $80 million and constituted the leading vegetable export from the country.
The Kaye Innovation Awards at the Hebrew University have been awarded annually since 1994. Isaac Kaye of England, a prominent industrialist in the pharmaceutical industry, established the awards to encourage faculty, staff, and students of the Hebrew University to develop innovative methods and inventions with good commercial potential which will benefit the university and society.
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