Tolerance to soil salinity has been bred into a variety of wheat, as described in a paper published online this week in Nature Biotechnology. This crop should be particularly useful in developing countries where wheat is commonly grown in arid or semi-arid areas with high-saline soil. Matthew Gilliham and colleagues characterized a previously identified gene that is present in an ancestral salt-tolerant relative of wheat but not in modern commercial varieties. The researchers showed that the gene functions as a transporter that efficiently removes sodium from water that is transported from the roots to the leaves of plants, thereby improving plant tolerance to high-saline soil. A hybrid variety of the wheat was created by breeding the ancestral relative with a commercial variety; this was tested in field trials and showed increases in grain yield of up to 25% in high-saline soils without compromised productivity in low-saline soils. This breeding line of wheat is not a transgenic, as it was created by conventional crossing, and highlights the potential of using biotechnology to harness genetic diversity found in undomesticated plants to improve modern crops without necessarily creating transgenic organisms.
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