Biologist Salma Balazadeh’s Cause: Managing Plants’ Stress to Secure Global Food Supply

Internationally, Max Planck Institutes (MPI) enjoy an outstanding reputation for their excellent research. Needless to say, MPI scientists belong to the best in their respective disciplines. AGYA member Salma Balazadeh is one of them. In this portrait, she explains how she benefits from being an AGYA member and how she initiated scientific collaborations between research groups from Arab and German countries – through and within the AGYA network of excellence.

'Plants – as all beings – are exposed to stress. Think of heat waves or floods which imply tremendous stress that can even cause them to die.' As the leader of the cooperative research group 'Stress Control Networks' at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology (MPI-MP) in Germany, Salma Balazadeh tries to figure out what actually happens in plants’ genes when they are under stress: Do they adapt? Do they develop and 'run' permanent new mechanisms so that they are protected against stress in the future? And, can we transfer these mechanisms to other plants to increase crop yield or make crop more resistant against stress?

'My visibility within the Arab science community has reached a new level.'

Since Salma has joined AGYA in 2014, the academy supports her and her Arab co-member, biotechnologist Henda Mahmoudi who is based in Dubai/UAE. AGYA funded a scientific exchange program on crop genomics in 2016 which turned out to be very fruitful. Also, AGYA provided the financial means for an international workshop on 'Precision Engineering of the Genome – Ethical Perspectives in Societies with Islamic and Christian Heritage'. It took place in Hammamet/Tunisia last December. Salma Balazadeh sums up the benefits: 'Without AGYA´s support my visibility within the scientific community in Arab countries would not have reached the level it has reached now. I am extremely thankful to AGYA for its support in this respect!'

'AGYA offers me an opportunity in forwarding my scientific knowledge and achievements.'

Being a member of AGYA gives her a chance not only to improve with regard to her domain but also to expand her research skills. It also provides a platform for developing and implementing interdisciplinary studies at an international level which is highly desirable for the benefit of society. Through the AGYA membership, Salma Balazadeh got in touch with young researchers from various Arab countries working in her field of interest. 'Until then, scientific collaborations between research groups from Arab and German countries in the area of crop genomics were almost non-existing', Salma explains. As part of her AGYA project, she visited the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai, where her AGYA colleague Henda Mahmoudi works. Furthermore, both scientists visited the Center of Biotechnology of Borj-Cedria (CBBC) in Tunisia, where plant biologist and AGYA member Ahmed Debez is affiliated. 'This already triggered follow-up activities between our three research institutions, such as joint research projects or the exchange of research methods, materials, and personnel', Salma states.

Salma Balazadeh strongly believes that the AGYA membership offers her an excellent opportunity to forward her scientific knowledge and achievements towards societal needs, e.g. by breeding stress-tolerant or high-yielding crop plants that grow in unfavourable environments. 'In our AGYA research project we bring complementary expertise together: While Henda studies yield characteristics of various crops under conditions of limiting water supply and during salinity stress, I focus on genome technologies to unravel the cellular networks that allow plants to respond to abiotic stresses and better cope with them. Ahmed includes cutting-edge omics technologies in his research to uncover mechanisms of salinity tolerance. Knowledge gained from our research may help to improve the breeding of drought and salinity tolerant crops in the future.'

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