Salt-tolerant durum wheat could ensure food security

A new type of durum wheat that can tolerate salty soil has been developed by Australian scientists, in a discovery they could help reduce world food shortages.

A team from the University of Adelaide conducted the study, and will make the new kind of durum wheat, which was made by crossing a modern wheat variety with a similar variety of crop, will be available to publically funded breeding programs across the globe.

Trials crops of the wheat in Moree and other areas in the south have a grain yield in salty crops that is 25 per cent higher than the normal type.

The University of Adelaide’s Matthew Gilliham, who led the study, said his team is the first in the world to conduct successful research on farms, not just in laboratories or greenhouses.

"This is why this work is particularly important, we think," he said.

The team first discovered a gene in an older salt-tolerant relative of commercial durum wheat which removes sodium from water as it is moves from the roots to the leaves.

The most challenging part was developing a new cross-breed which had this gene, without reducing the crop yield, Gilliham said.

Tests of the crop have found that the wheat performed far better than the traditional variety under salty conditions, and it did not come at the price of performance in normal conditions, which remained the same as the other type.

Salinity affects over 20 per cent of the world’s agricultural soils, including some in Australia, and presents a worsening threat to food production because of climate change, according to CSIRO’s Rana Munns, who was part of the research team.

Gilliham said creating crops that can withstand environmental changes is crucial to ensuring our food security in years to come.

"With global population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, and the demand for food expected to rise by 100 per cent in this time, salt-tolerant crops will be an important tool to ensure future food security," he said.

Durum wheat is mostly used to make pasta and couscous, and is very susceptible to soil salinity.

The team is now working on a new variety of bread-making wheat with the salt tolerance gene.

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