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Learning from nature to create sustainable food production

Researchers from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) believe that salt-loving plants may be the key to global efforts for sustainable food production.

Farmland is vanishing in part because the salinity in the soil is rising as a result of climate change and other man-made phenomena.

In an opinion paper published in the highly prestigious journal Trends in Plant Sciences, Professor Sergey Shabala (pictured), Dr Jayakumar Bose and Professor Rainer Hedrich propose a new concept for breeding salt-tolerant plants as a way to contribute to global efforts for sustainable food production.

"We suggest that we should learn from nature and do what halophytes, or naturally salt-loving plants, are doing: taking up salt but depositing it in a safe place—external balloon-like structures on the leaf surface called salt bladders," said Professor Shabala.

"This strategy has never been targeted by breeders and, therefore, could add a new and very promising dimension to breeding salinity-tolerant crops. This is an untapped resource, and we are in a unique position to make a good use of it", he said.

Soil salinity is claiming about three hectares, or 7.4 acres, of usable land from conventional crop farming every minute. This costs the agricultural sector many billions of dollars each year and jeopardises the ability to meet the target of feeding 9.3 billion people by 2050.

Professor Shabala and his colleagues suggest that recent research on salt bladders creates the exciting possibility of modifying genes in traditional crops such as wheat or rice to allow them to develop salt bladders without a major impact on their growth and yield.

"We know already about the key genes required to grow trichomes, or outgrowths of a plant. If we learn to activate those that trigger the developmental shift from an ordinary trichome to a salt bladder, one may be able to grow external salt depots on any crop," said Professor Hedrich, from the Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology and Biophysics, in Wurzburg, Germany who is also an Adjunct Professor at TIA.

The authors are confident that researchers have all of the tools needed to identify the molecular transporters involved in salt loading within salt bladders as well as the developmental switches that are involved. Assuming this work receives an adequate financial support, truly salt-tolerant crops may become a reality in a few years' time.

TIA is a joint venture between the University of Tasmania and the State Government.

Published on: 29 Oct 2014 10:18am