Salt tolerant plants for future food production: Middle East research with desert plants and microbes

Living in Saudi Arabia became a catalyst that began my interest, starting with dust storms, in learning about desert ecosystems and agriculture. The environment being so foreign to my past experiences living on planet earth, was something I wanted to understand better. Through reading many scientific articles relating to desert environments, heat extremes, desertification, sand and dust storms, water scarcity and the challenge of growing food in such environments, I am still fascinated at what can be learned through the study of native plants. Here is an interesting article that seeks to find another way to use crop wild relatives that retain a diverse genetic pool, opposed to domesticated crops that have been bred to retain certain characteristics like high yield, larger fruit, better taste, etc., reducing their genetic signature.

In the article, “Shaking up salt-friendly agriculture” by Sedeer El-Showk in Nature Middle East, 20 Dec. 2017, two different approaches are discussed. The first approach is research that has been done with genome sequencing; finding genes in wild crop relatives to improve domesticated crops, studied in Australia and now Dubai labs under Mark Tester at KAUST. The second is at KAUST with Heribert Hirt. In this study, the research team is focusing on microbes that exist with desert plants, and seeks to understand the relationship between the plant and microbes. This is a different approach than studying the genetic code to alter the genes in a plant through conventional breeding, or using technology that genetically modifies an organism. A very promising new way to think about how nature is working within specifically salty environments. Find out about this interesting research that could lead to food security in marginal lands within the Middle East and around the world, as climate change will challenge plant growth rates, reproduction, heat tolerance and yield.

The link to the full online article is below.

The following is an excerpt from the article.

“Irrigated systems produce about a third of the world’s food, but they’re all unsustainable systems at the moment,” says Mark Tester, head of the SALTLAB at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). “Every groundwater aquifer that’s being used for irrigation is being depleted. This is very clearly documented and is a massive concern. There’s an imperative to change our current agricultural system.”…

“The desert is actually a natural laboratory where an experiment has been going on for thousands of years with enormous pressure on plants to survive. As you go through the desert, nothing is growing and then suddenly you have a plant there. How does it do that?” 

Along with international collaborators, Hirt is collecting microbes from desert plants and screening them to discover those which improve plants’ stress tolerance. They’ve identified a microbe which can improve yields by 20% under saline conditions, and this year his lab published its genome sequence.  

Through the microbe’s genome, Hirt hopes to uncover the molecular language mediating its interaction with plants. “We know a lot about how pathogens and plants talk to each other, but we basically know nothing about how beneficial microbes and plants talk together,” says Hirt. “If we could actually understand that better, could we then predict what works together?”  

Hirt believes that the low-cost, low-tech nature of microbial supplements makes this approach particularly useful for small-scale and subsistence farmers. Distributing the system to farmers in need is likely to pose a significant hurdle, but Hirt is reaching out to NGOs engaged with poor farmers throughout the world. “We are just at the brink of an ecological green revolution where microbes are coming into the game, where we can replace a lot of the chemicals that we have been using as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides,” he says. “But this also depends a lot on us scientists providing simple solutions for people.” …

“By combining desalination with approaches that improve water use efficiency and take advantage of low quality water, farmers in the region may be able to improve their productivity in the face of difficult and worsening conditions.

In the long run, the aim is to develop a saltwater-based agricultural system in which farmers can irrigate salt tolerant crops with low-quality water in a sustainable and economically viable manner.”

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