Scientists discover key to increasing crop yields in salty farmlands

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Scientists discover key to increasing crop yields in salty farmlands

A group of researchers may have found a way to reverse declining crop yields when they're caused by salty farmlands - an especially significant discovery considering production regions around the world are becoming increasingly high in saline, reports Frontiers in Microbiology

Scientists have successfully used bacteria found in the roots of salt-tolerant plants to inoculate alfalfa plants against overly salty soil.

"We take the roots of these salt-tolerant plants (called halophytes), grind them up and grow the bacteria in a petri dish in the lab," Brent Nielsen, professor of microbiology and leader of the study, says.

"Doing this, we isolated over 40 different bacteria isolates, some of which can tolerate ocean-level salt content."

The team then applied the bacteria isolates to alfalfa seeds through a solution. After, they tested the alfalfa's ability to grow in high-saline conditions.

They saw noteworthy growth of the alfalfa both in their lab and in greenhouse experiments, reports the publication.

Discovery to hold key to farming in salty soil?

The scientists identified that two specific bacteria isolates - Halomonas and Bacillus - drove the change. They used these to stimulate plant growth in the presence of 1% sodium chloride; this amount of salt drastically inhibits the growth of uninoculated plants.

The possibility of transforming plants to be more resilient could change the future of farming. This is especially true considering farmland in China, Australia, and the Middle East have grown increasingly salty; major farmland in the southwest U.S. has as well.

Caitlyn McNary, one of the six BYU undergraduate co-authors on the paper, explains the phenomenon.

As growers repeatedly use an area of land for farming, the soil's salinity rises, she says.

"The irrigation water has salt in it and when it evaporates or is taken up by the plants, the salt is left behind," she elaborates.

"With what we've found, lands that are now unable to sustain plant life due to high salinity could once again be used for crops."

In addition to the work on alfalfa, the research team has started to conduct lab and greenhouse experiments on rice.

Other produce items it is focusing on are green beans and lettuce. And the next step is to carry out field trials on the inoculated crops.

Six BYU undergraduate students mainly carried out the lab work for the research. These students include McNary and fellow first author Jennifer Kearl, Emily Colton, Steven Smith, Jason West and Michelle Hamson.

BYU Plant and Wildlife professor Zachary Aanderud was also a co-author. Additionally, so were Scott Lowman and Chuansheng Mei of the Plant Endophyte Research Center.

"We've long wondered if increasingly salty land was just a losing battle or if there was something we could do about it," Nielsen comments.

"Now we have shown there is something we can do about it."



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