Crop wild relatives can lend genes to our food crops, making them more food secure for the future

Looking online for some information about Middle East wild crop relatives, I ran across this article published in 20 Dec. 2017 in, (nature middle east section). It’s entitled, Shaking up salt-friendly agriculture, written by Sedeer El-Showk. High salt-tolerant crops grown in the Middle East are a new focus for scientific study and genome sequencing applications, as well as a source for microbial material.

Read on below for excerpts from this informative article. Finding ways we can link ancestors of commercial food crops we now grow, to help produce food in the future is a hot topic nowadays. The link to the entire article is at the bottom of the page.

“Humanity needs innovative agricultural approaches to face the food shortages posed by changing climate patterns and a global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Agricultural output must keep pace, but the productivity of more than a billion hectares of land is limited by salinity. Freshwater resources are also strained by overuse and climate change, to which the Middle East is especially vulnerable.

Desalination is a partial solution, but it’s unlikely to provide enough freshwater. To close the gap, scientists in the region are looking to the wilderness and adapting and adopting ancient agricultural practices.”

“…During domestication, crop plants were bred for greater productivity and convenience, not durability. While our major crops do poorly in drought or salty water, some of their relatives grow well on poor soils and unreliable or low-quality water. For Tester, the genomes of these plants are a treasure trove which scientists and breeders can use to make crops more resilient.”

“…Tester’s lab grew the partially wild barley lines at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai for two years with fresh and salty water. A single line descended from a plant in northeastern Iraq grew better than domesticated barley in the stressful conditions of the field trials — low quality soil, intermittent water stress, and high temperatures — and also did well when irrigated with saline water. The team has pinpointed the genetic location responsible for the plant’s stress tolerance and are now crossing it into commercial barley strains.”

“…Another advance has come from a wild tomato strain found in the Galápagos Islands, which grows on exposed cliff faces constantly splashed by seawater. “That variety has got an incredible ability to maintain fruit production in saline conditions,” says Tester. The genetic regions responsible were identified by a student in his lab and are now being crossed into several commercial tomato varieties. The team is also sequencing a highly salt tolerant strain of currant tomato which they discovered during the project.”

“…To discover valuable genomic resources, Tester’s lab combines modern sequencing technologies with a high-throughput plant characterization platform he established in Australia before moving to KAUST. By statistically analyzing precise differences in plants’ stress tolerance along with their genome sequence, the team identifies genomic regions linked with valuable traits, accelerating the pace of breeding.”

‘Elsewhere at KAUST, Heribert Hirt is tackling the problem from a different angle. Rather than breed tougher plants, he aims to supplement them with microbes that can help them cope with adverse conditions.” 

To find these tiny helpers, Hirt turned to the desert and the plants that thrive there.

“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.” ‘

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