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Tech Tuesday

Researchers Make Progress on Salt Tolerance

Researchers make progress on salt issues, new tools help discover DNA variations in crop genomes and invasive plants as 'nitrogen robbers'

While salt tolerance issues aren't usually considered a Midwestern problem they're a hot issue in other parts of the world, and work being done in the area could be applied to other plant problems in the future. That may be true with work done on the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus in Australia, where researchers there have developed salt-tolerant plants using a new type of genetic modification. Their approach was to use the genetic technique to contain salt in parts of the plants where it could do little damage.

Salinity hits ag worldwide, and results of this new work appeared recently in the journal The Plant Cell. The team used a technique that kept salt - as sodium ions - out of leaves of a model plant species. Basically, they modified genes around the plants water conducting "pipes" or xylem so salt is removed from the transpiration stream before it gets to the shoot. The team is now working to transfer the technology to key crops including rice, barley and wheat. It's research like this that will show the importance of genetic technology in solving world food problems.

Finding DNA Variations. We've made a lot of progress in the human genome, but it turns out on plants...we're behind. But research by a Cornell University team along with USDA and Roche Applied Science, is working to change that. The aim is to sequence the cultivar or line for a single plant, and gather up gene-enriched single-nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced Snips) for those crops. How could that help? Work published in the journal The Plant Genome talks about the SNPs discoveries.

Researchers took an existing molecular technique and modified it to enable gene-enrichment and resequencing of corn inbred lines B73 and Mo17 - the mother lode of genetic material for top hybrids at one time. From this work, the researchers developed 126,683 SNPs that can be used to better understand complex traits in corn. While it sounds a bit like gobbledygook, the truth is having those SNPs for corn could be a powerful tool in the advancement of marker-assisted breeding. Already SNPs are used in the cattle market to do specific genetic testing to better understand how animals will perform. Use in the crop world could have plenty of benefits for enhanced breeding in the future.

Nitrogen Robbers at Work. A few weeks back we highlighted research that showed invasive species do a great job of pushing their way into an ecosystem. Now comes word of University of Nebraska research showing another tool invasive plants use to get territory in a new area - they pool nitrogen, making it unavailable to surrounding plants. In an article published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers show how at least one invasive plant does its job.

Studying white pine as the invader, they discovered the plant would pool nitrogen, which then made that useful nutrient unavailable to surrounding plants. That gives the invader the advantage for other resources including water and light, as it grows and neighbors are slowed up. It's a fascinating look at the competition going on in the plant world, but it makes us wonder. If invasive species work that hard to steal nitrogen, just what must early-season weeds be doing against that emerging crop in your fields. It's an area of research getting more attention every year.

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