Experts develop salt-tolerant, high-yield wheat

HONG KONG Mon Mar 12, 2012 7:26am EDT

1 of 2. An emu makes its way through a wheat field on a farm near Chinchilla, about 250km (155 miles) west of Brisbane, October 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Scientists in Australia have crossed a popular, commercial variety of wheat with an ancient species, producing a hardy, high-yielding plant that is tolerant of salty soil.

The researchers, who published their work on Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology, hope the new strain will help address food shortages in arid and semi-arid places where farmers struggle with high salinity in the soil.

"This is first time that ... a genetic variation that has been lost in plants through domestication has been reclaimed from a wild relative and put back into the plant," said lead researcher Matthew Gilliham of the University of Adelaide's School of Agriculture.

The researchers used a gene believed to be responsible for controlling the salt content in plants and that was isolated more than 10 years ago from an ancient wheat variety.

The gene makes a protein that is present in the roots of wheat and it helps block salt from travelling up the plant, Gilliham said in a telephone interview. Salt lowers yields and eventually kills the plant.

"When plants grow in salty conditions, the enzymes in the plants don't work very well anymore," Gilliham said.

"We crossed the gene into modern, commercially-grown wheat. It confers salinity tolerance by withdrawing the salts from the xylem, retaining them in the roots and stopping them getting up the shoots where the salt damages the plant and stops it from photosynthesizing," he explained.

The researchers grew the new, improved wheat variety in soil with high salt content and found that it produced yields up to 25 percent more than strains without the ancient gene.

"People will see how it works ... maybe in 5 years it will benefit other varieties of wheat," Gilliham said.

He said farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, the United States and Russia may also benefit from the modified wheat.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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Comments (3)
emu wrote:
This just postphones the inevitable as thesalt will accumulate in the ground.
Can’t they make a plant that extracts the salt from the ground and makes it useful again for normal agriculture?

Mar 12, 2012 8:09am EDT  --  Report as abuse
buffowens wrote:
The salt has already accumulated in the ground. Growing a plant there will do nothing to increase the salt load in the soil–plants don’t generate salt.

On the other hand growing plants will decrease erosion by loosening the soil at the same time it holds it in place with its roots. This will allow for a more natural flushing of salt from the ground than arid runoff patterns. In time these plants are able to recover the land.

It’s interesting that the gene was isolated from an ancient strain of wheat. We selected for, and modified, wheat to be what it is today. Now we are returning to a trait endemic in the species–but now, since it was an isolated gene, someone has Intellectual Property on it.

I guess we now pay a price to go back to our roots. Who are we paying, and why do they have this kind of leverage? Seems like we’ve done an odd thing to ourselves with this system.

Mar 13, 2012 3:44pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
ILoveScience wrote:
I agree with buffowens. Genetic information should not be subject to patent law, human or otherwise.

Mar 13, 2012 11:10pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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