Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 10:18 UK

Wild fruit trees face extinction

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Kyrgyzstan forest
Kyrgyzstan's forests are home to the ancestors of domestic apples

The wild ancestors of common domestic fruit trees are in danger of becoming extinct, scientists have warned.

Researchers have published a "red list" of threatened species that grow in the forests of Central Asia.

These disease-resistant and climate-tolerant fruit trees could play a role in our future food security.

But in the last 50 years, about 90% of the forests have been destroyed, according to conservation charity, Fauna & Flora International.

The Red List of Central Asia identifies 44 tree species in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan as under threat from extinction.

It cites over-exploitation and human development as among the main threats to the region's forests, which are home to more than 300 wild fruit and nut species including apple, plum, cherry, apricot and walnut.

Antonia Eastwood, the lead author of the research, described the region as a "unique global hotspot of diversity".

"A lot of these species are only found in this area," she told BBC News. "It's very mountainous and dry, so many of these species have a great deal of tolerance to cold and drought.

"A lot of our domestic fruit supply comes from a very narrow genetic base," she continued. "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 programmes."

Farming fruit

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are thought to be the ancestral homes of familiar favourites such as Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.

The US Department of Agriculture has already sponsored expeditions to Kazakhstan, during which scientists have collected samples with the aim of expanding the genetic diversity of farm-grown apples.

Kyrgyzstan fruit harvest
Communities in Central Asia are learning to use the forests sustainably

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

"But these countries lack the resources to conserve their valuable trees," added Dr Eastwood.

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

The organisation is training local scientists and involving communities in the planning and managing of their own forests.



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