My research focuses on understanding the origin and diversity of the genus Crocus (Iridaceae), with particular emphasis on a triploid sterile plant, Crocus sativus (2n=3x=24) that yields Saffron, one of the most expensive spices on earth. The saffron is the stigmas of the flowers, and nearly 200,000 must be collected to give 1kg of spice, valued for its aroma and colour in both sweet and savoury dishes. Saffron is a high value, sustainable crop where improvement is potentially possible through exploitation of diversity within the genus Crocus. It is produced in many countries, with Iran, India (Kashmir), Greece, Italy and Spain being particularly important, each with their own ways of growing and processing the spice. However, the loss of land surface for saffron cultivation, exclusive vegetative multiplication that does not induce genomic variations along the distribution of particular genotypes, may have narrowed down its genetic base, and the process may be still going on. Nevertheless, the actual amount of genetic variability present in Crocus as a genus and in Saffron is largely unknown and it is supposed that Saffron material may be
similar around the world. So an important question is whether the cultivated triploid species has originated only once from its progenitors, or whether there have been several hybridization events.
Saffron does not occur naturally in the wild, and the parental species are yet not defined. Therefore, in my PhD project, I aim to identify the polymorphisms and genomic relationships in species of Crocus section Crocus and some more distant relatives, and particularly the diversity and origin of C. sativus.
Since 2009, I have been studying the morphology of the genus Crocus, and exploiting various molecular markers, such as IRAPs, ESTs and SNPs to establish the relationship among the members of the genus and to identify the potential ancestral parents in Crocus sativus. I have also been applying fluorescent in situ hybridization with genomic DNA as probes from various diploid and polyploid candidate ancestors to the chromosomes of C. sativus to identify the species, which may have contributed in the speciation of C. sativus. At present, I am also working to isolate repetitive DNA sequences from various members of the genus Crocus including saffron.
The final analysis of my results shall give a broad picture of the phylogeny of Crocus species and the genomes present in the domesticated species of Saffron. We will be able to conclude whether all saffron is genetically nearly identical, or whether there is variation. Finally, when parental species are identified, we aim to attempt and make new hybrids to resynthesize saffron and compare the different forms.
The research is in the framework of two international projects, the EU FP7 proejct Crocusbank and the COST European programme in Science and Technology Saffronomics studying the biology of saffron and other crocuses, and looking at the quality of the spice.
Nouf F. Alsayied (also Nauf Alsayaid; PhD student University of Leicester/faculty member Umm Al-Qura University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)
Annals of Botany Publication https://molcyt.org/2015/07/02/diversity-and-relationships-of-crocus-sativus-and-its-relatives-analysed-by-iraps/
Dec 2015: added link to publication and preferred transliteration of name following revision in the University student registration system).