Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wheat. The Dominant Grain Just Gets Better

Wheat is one of the dominant grains grown on this planet, and most traditional cuisines have been forced to adopt it into themselves. Wheat opened up the Canadian west, allowing the prairie provinces to become the "breadbasket of the world" back in the middle of the last century. Wheat is one of the heavyweights, no doubt.
Now, wheat's just got a shot in the arm--improved salt tolerance. The University of Adelaide announced on Monday 12 March 2012:

A team of Australian scientists involving the University of Adelaide has bred salt tolerance into a variety of durum wheat that shows improved grain yield by 25% on salty soils.
Using 'non-GM' crop breeding techniques, scientists from CSIRO Plant Industry have introduced a salt-tolerant gene into a commercial durum wheat, with spectacular results shown in field tests. Researchers at the University of Adelaide's Waite Research Institute have led the effort to understand how the gene delivers salinity tolerance to the plants.
The research is the first of its kind in the world to fully describe the improvement in salt tolerance of an agricultural crop - from understanding the function of the salt-tolerant genes in the lab, to demonstrating increased grain yields in the field.

This is actually important news. A significant part of the world's soils have a high salinity. And irrigated soil sees its salinity rise also. This latter could be addressed with better soil management practices, but the drive toward repeated cropping without fallow periods means that much of our land will continue to degrade. And if its being irrigated, its salinity will increase.
Domestication and breeding has narrowed the gene pool of modern wheat, leaving it susceptible to problems with saline soils. But early wheat cultivars had better resistance to salty soils. The researchers at U Adelaide used conventional breeding to move the salt-tolerant gene (TmHKT1;5-A) into a modern cultivar. By using traditional practices, rather than modern gene splicing, means that the new variety will be able to be planted anywhere without concerns or resistance being raised.
The salt-tolerant durum wheat shows no yield-penalty from the breeding. Yields remain about the same under normal planting conditions, and show as much as 25% increased yield in salty conditions. Which means that the new variety will be able to be sown uniformly in a field, regardless of whether or not there are patches of saltier soil.
Dr James, who led the field trials, says: "While most studies only look at performance under controlled conditions in a laboratory or greenhouse, this is the first study to confirm that the salt-tolerant gene increases yields on a farm with saline soils.

The researchers have taken the next step and have bred the salt-tolerance gene into wheat cultivars used for making bread. 

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