Scientists Make Progress on Salt-Tolerant GM Crops

gm salt-tolerant plant photo

The top plants are the non-GM plants, the bottom ones are. Photo: Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics/University of Adelaide

One key part of ensuring adequate food supplies as the world's climate changes, especially in places where water supply and water salinity changes are likely to be large, is developing crops with higher salt-tolerance. Scientists at the University of Adelaide in Australia are doing just that, using a form of genetic modification to help plants hold the salt in parts of the plant which do the least harm. Science Daily describes the procedure:

Professor [Mark] Tester says his team used the technique to keep salt – as sodium ions (Na+) – out of the leaves of a model plant species. The researchers modified genes specifically around the plant's water conducting pipes (xylem) so that salt is removed from the transpiration stream before it gets to the shoot.

"This reduces the amount of toxic Na+ building up in the shoot and so increases the plant's tolerance to salinity," Professor Tester says.

Prof Tester says this work is really just helping plants do what they already do, but much better.

Future work for Tester's team hopes to bring this technique to rice, wheat and barley.

Salt Tolerant Varieties of Plants Don't Have to Mean GM Crops
It's worth pointing out that breeding and planting salt-tolerant crops doesn't have to mean genetic modification (and the eventual and probable commercialization and privatization) of crops.

Groups like Dr Vandana Shiva's Navdanya have been working with farmers for some time to identify climate, flood and salt-tolerant varieties of cereal crops and establishing community seed banks so that future preservation of these crops can be ensured.

It very well may be that these varieties already exist, or existed, but got sidelined as food plant varieties became limited due to focusing on one specific trait, such as shelf life, ability to withstand shipment or mechanized harvesting.

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