Scientists in Australia have crossed a popular, commercial variety of wheat with an ancient species, producing a hardy, high-yielding plant that is tolerant of salty soil.
The researchers, who published their work on Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology, hope the new strain will help address food shortages in arid and semi-arid places where farmers struggle with high salinity in the soil.
"This is first time that ... a genetic variation that has been lost in plants through domestication has been reclaimed from a wild relative and put back into the plant," said lead researcher Matthew Gilliham of the University of Adelaide's School of Agriculture.
The researchers used a gene believed to be responsible for controlling the salt content in plants and that was isolated more than 10 years ago from an ancient wheat variety.
The gene makes a protein that is present in the roots of wheat and it helps block salt from travelling up the plant, Gilliham said in a telephone interview. Salt lowers yields and eventually kills the plant.
"When plants grow in salty conditions, the enzymes in the plants don't work very well anymore," Gilliham said.
"We crossed the gene into modern, commercially-grown wheat. It confers salinity tolerance by withdrawing the salts from the xylem, retaining them in the roots and stopping them getting up the shoots where the salt damages the plant and stops it from photosynthesizing," he explained.
The researchers grew the new, improved wheat variety in soil with high salt content and found that it produced yields up to 25 percent more than strains without the ancient gene.
"People will see how it works ... maybe in 5 years it will benefit other varieties of wheat," Gilliham said.
He said farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, the United States and Russia may also benefit from the modified wheat.