May 7, 2009

Study Suggests Wild Fruit Trees Could Be Close To Extinction

Scientists are warning that the wild ancestors of common domestic fruit trees are in danger of becoming extinct, BBC News reported.

The conclusion is based on a "red list" of threatened species that grow in the forests of Central Asia where the disease-resistant and climate-tolerant fruit trees could play a role in our future food security.

However, conservation charity Fauna & Flora International said that about 90 percent of the forests have been destroyed in the last 50 years.

The trees currently under threat from extinction include 44 species in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, according to The Red List of Central Asia.

The region's forests, which are home to more than 300 wild fruit and nut species including apple, plum, cherry, apricot and walnut, are mostly threatened by over-exploitation and human development.

The region is a unique global hotspot of diversity, according to Antonia Eastwood, the lead author of the research.

She told BBC News that a lot of those species are only found in that area because it's very mountainous and dry and so many of those select species have a great deal of tolerance to cold and drought.

She added that a lot of the domestic fruit supply comes from a very narrow genetic base.

"Given the threats posed to food supplies by disease and the changing climate, we may need to go back to these species and include them in breeding programs," she said.

Such familiar favorites like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious are thought to originate from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Expeditions to Kazakhstan, where scientists collected samples with the aim of expanding the genetic diversity of farm-grown apples, have been sponsored in the past by The US Department of Agriculture.

Eastwood explained that this type of genetic foraging allows domestic lines to be crossed with wild strains, producing varieties more resistant to diseases such as apple scab, a fungus that can wreak havoc on crops.

He said those countries lack the resources to conserve their valuable trees.

Fauna & Flora International is working with scientists in Kyrgyzstan as part of this year's UK Darwin Initiative to carry out research on threatened trees and develop methods to sustainably harvest the fruit.

Scientists and communities will be involved in the planning and managing of their own forests, according to the organization.


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