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Australian Researchers Develop Salt-Tolerant Wheat Strain

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Agricultural researchers at universities and research institutes in Australia have developed a strain of wheat that can thrive in salty soils. Their findings appear today online in journal Nature Biotechnology (paid subscription required).

The research led by University of Adeliade plant scientist Matthew Gilliham first aimed at understanding in the lab the functioning of salt-tolerant genes. This understanding led to development of a new variety of salt-tolerant durum wheat — the kind used to make pasta — that demonstrates increased grain yields in field tests with salty soils.

Gilliham says salt-tolerant wheat has a gene that generates a protein, which keeps sodium from moving into the plant’s leaves. If sodium starts building up in leaves, it will affect processes such as photosynthesis, which is critical to the plant’s growth. His team discovered ancestral relatives of today’s modern wheat varieties have the gene that provides salinity tolerance.

The paper’s lead author Rana Munns, of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), notes that the team used standard cross-breeding techniques to introduce the salt-tolerant gene into commercial durum wheat. “This means we have produced a novel durum wheat that is not classified as transgenic, or ‘GM’, and can therefore be planted without restriction,” Munns says.

CSIRO’s Richard James led the field tests of the new wheat, conducted at several sites across Australia, including a commercial farm. “Under standard conditions, the wheat containing the salt-tolerance gene performed the same in the field as durum that did not have the gene,” says James. “But under salty conditions, it outperformed its durum wheat parent, with increased yields of up to 25 percent.” James adds that these results indicate growers can plant this one variety in farms with normal and salty soils without penalty.

“Salinity is a particular issue in the prime wheat-growing areas of Australia, the world’s second-largest wheat exporter after the United States,” says Gilliham. “With global population estimated to reach nine billion by 2050, and the demand for food expected to rise by 100 percent in this time, salt-tolerant crops will be an important tool to ensure future food security.”

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