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Published: 4 Jul 2019

Pile of tri-coloured quinoa

We all know someone who puts extra chicken salt on their chips, but did you know that some food-producing plants actually prefer saltier soils too?

These salt-craving plants are called halophytes and they may hold the clue to feeding our growing population in a less predictable climate.

Italian scientist Dr Nadia Bazihizina is unravelling how halophytes like quinoa deal with excessive salinity which would normally damage other agricultural plants.

“Excessive soil salinity is hugely damaging for food production – as serious as a drought,” said Dr Bazihizina, who is collaborating on research with the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA).

“Soils are becoming more and more saline because of land overuse, badly managed irrigation and poor drainage.”

Lucky for us, halophytes have evolved to survive in really salty soils – with the heartiest among them even surviving in seawater.

To investigate these future-proof foods, in 2016 Dr Bazihizina set up the project "Understanding halophytes for an agriculture worth its salt" or HALO. HALO is focussed on quinoa, a pseudocereal crop with high economic potential. Dr Bazihizina said salt tolerance research usually focusses on sodium, but the team found something surprising when they first started the project.

“When quinoa grows in saline soils, the plant copes with the excess salt by storing it outside the leaves in modified leaf hairs, called bladders.

“Unexpectedly, we found that quinoa plants transport a lot of chloride in the bladders, even more than sodium. Once we understand how this is done, this behaviour could potentially be transferred into salt-sensitive crops.”

Halophytes like quinoa—or other plants modified with their traits—may one day replace more traditional cereal crops like wheat. Halophytes could be grown in coastal areas, marshes, or even desert regions currently unsuitable for agriculture. Dr Bazihizina even imagines a future in which farmers could one day incorporate seawater into their irrigation systems.

“With an increasingly unpredictable climate, these plants could ensure more stable yields and help to conserve our precious fresh water.

“This is a gold mine that we have just started exploring,” said Dr Bazihizina.

Dr Bazihizina’s HALO project is funded by a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, administered through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. Her project was among 1100 selected for funding from over 8000 applications across Europe.

HALO is a collaborative project between TIA and the University of Florence, where Dr Bazihizina will be based for the final year of the project.

TIA Plant Physiology Professor Dr Sergey Shabala said the global agriculture industry is already seeing the potential of HALO. At a recent industry forum in Shanghai, more than 100 farmers and industry reps discussed the place for halophytes on our dinner tables for years to come.

“Our future will rely on quinoa and other halophytes. Investigating their potential is critical so that we have enough food a couple of decades from now,” said Dr Shabala.