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Cross Pollination

Two scientists in greenhouse pollinating blueberry plants
Hudson Ashrafi (left) is hosting Fulbright Visiting Scholar Ahlam Hamim at NC State. Their collaboration aims to boost blueberry industries in North Carolina and abroad.

International trade plays an important role in modern agriculture, and so does the exchange of knowledge and innovation among agricultural scientists around the world. A deepening partnership between NC State blueberry geneticist Hudson Ashrafi and North African small fruit scientist Ahlam Hamim is aimed at boosting blueberry industries in two very different parts of the globe.

Hamim, a government scientist from Morocco, recently spent three months in Ashrafi’s blueberry genetics and genomics laboratory as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar.

Through the United States Department of State program, about 800 scholars come from around the globe each year to lecture and conduct advanced research in the United States.

Hamim works at Morocco’s Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, or INRA-Morocco. She arrived in Ashrafi’s lab with NC State University’s Department of Horticultural Science in January for a three-month visit. However, due to COVID-19, the visit has been extended for another month. Working remotely, she is using bioinformatics to analyze blueberry data.

Learning Bioinformatics from an Expert

At the time Hamim arrived, Ashrafi had five students joining his lab, as well as a USDA Foreign Agriculture Service Borlaug Fellow from Turkey. He arranged for the small group to meet regularly so he could teach them how to store and analyze large amounts of biological data in ways that speed genetic research.

Hamim used the knowledge about bioinformatics she gained during those sessions to study the genetics involved when blueberries are exposed to chilling in the winter. Without low temperatures for an adequate period of time in the winter, blueberry leaves and blooms can be late and erratic, and that can result in lower yields.

Hamim said the research could have important implications for growing Morocco’s blueberry industry. Right now, the crop is important in the northern part of the country, and she thinks that by developing blueberry varieties tailored to the climate there, farmers could boost production and expand their exports to Europe. Consumption of blueberries in Europe has risen in recent years, attributed in part to the berries’ status as a superfood – one that’s packed with health-improving compounds.

What Hamim learned at NC State could also have benefits in North Carolina, where scientists and farmers are concerned that climate change could lower blueberry yields by reducing the amount of chilling time.

Earlier Visit Inspires a Fruitful Partnership

Hamim’s research at NC State grew out of an earlier trip that she made to the United States in spring 2018. As a Borlaug Fellow, she came to the university to work with Ashrafi and to spend time in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Micropropagation and Repository Unit.

In the unit, Hamim learned plant tissue culture techniques, which allow scientists to rapidly multiply stock plants in petri dishes. When she left NC State, she brought home equipment and materials to continue using tissue culture in her research and teach the technique to students and colleagues working at INRA.

Eager to learn more, Hamim also began working to secure the means to return to Ashrafi’s lab. The two maintained contact as Hamim developed her application for the Fulbright scholarship.

Ashrafi has found the scientific partnership he’s built with Hamim personally and professionally rewarding.

“First of all, I like to empower people, and it benefits me, as well,” Ashrafi said. In time, the collaboration could also help NC State and the growers it serves.

Now, a Blossoming Exchange

After Hamim’s Borlaug program visit to North Carolina, Ashrafi had the chance to visit Morocco and spend time at INRA. Traveling hundreds of miles from the south to the north of Morocco, he saw the potential to commercialize previously-developed NC State blueberry varieties that haven’t adopted here.

The experience also allowed Ashrafi to make connections with other scientists and to begin exploring ideas for developing an international scientific consortium to advance the field of blueberry breeding and genetics. Through return travel to Morocco, Ashrafi has met other blueberry scientists from both Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

“Establishing a clear definition and agreements between our institutions will foster further honest and open communication and strengthen our relationship with stakeholders,” Ashrafi said. “This will enable us to exchange materials for research and to identify genotypes that can perform better in more parts of the world.”

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