M42, in collaboration with Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, has completed the sequencing and analysis of the ghaf tree, the national tree of the UAE, to further build upon previous research led by Khalifa Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. The tree is renowned for its ability to thrive in arid conditions, and M42’s genomics project aims to enhance understanding of genetic traits that enable organisms to thrive in challenging environments. This is especially crucial as the world addresses the effects of climate change and its impact on human health.

The ghaf tree, scientifically known as prosopis cineraria, plays a crucial role in stabilising desert soil and preventing damage, while also providing refuge for various desert creatures. Ghaf trees were designated the national tree of the UAE in 2008 due to its cultural and traditional significance. Each plant lives for 120 years on average. Traditionally, the tree was used to feed livestock and for its purported medicinal properties.

M42's team of environmental scientists, led by Dr Wael Elamin, Medical Director at M42, utilised cutting-edge sequencing platforms from Oxford Nanopore Technologies to achieve high-quality whole-genome sequencing of the Ghaf tree. With more than 99% mapping rate and 240 times more genome coverage to the existing genome reference, the study demonstrates a high-quality of data generated.

This work supplements the effort to create a robust catalogue of genetic variants offering valuable insights into gene functionality, gene expression patterns and unique genetic traits. The technology used by M42 also provides methylation information over and above the DNA sequence. The findings pave the way for further nature conservation efforts, understanding draught-resistance biology, the development of resilient trees adaptable to diverse ecological conditions and enables capacity building for agro-genomics solutions for the region and beyond. 

Dr Fahed Al Marzooqi, Deputy Group Chief Operating Officer at M42, said: “Human health is intricately intertwined with environmental health, and this has become increasingly clear to the world at large. Operating at the intersection of health, technology and sustainability, M42 is committed to addressing national and global health themes with disruptive health-tech solutions. Our groundbreaking sequencing initiative aims to enhance the understanding of the ghaf tree's genetic adaptations for thriving in arid conditions, which safeguards and champions the UAE’s natural legacy. The research also assumes critical significance as the world seeks to tackle the environment-warming effects of climate change.”

Ahmed Al Hashmi, Executive Director of the Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Sector at EAD, said: “We are pleased to partner with M42 on this pioneering project analysing and sequencing the genome of the Ghaf tree in line with our mission of monitoring and conserving plant species in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Our main goal is to have a better understanding through scientific research of the Ghaf tree to develop policies and a conservation framework to assure sustainability of the species for the future generations and to preserve the natural heritage of the UAE.”

M42’s sequencing technology can be used anywhere in the world for the investigation and conservation of flora and fauna of interest.

The announcement of the landmark project was made at Arab Health 2024, which runs from 29 January until 1 February in Dubai. M42, the event’s Global Health Partner, is leading the charge in shaping the future of sustainable health and showcasing the organisation’s health technology capabilities at its booth, located in Hall 6.