Scientists from the University of California at Davis and the University of Toronto have used genetic engineering to create a true salt-tolerant tomato plant. This enormously important accomplishment offers hope for coping with a growing worldwide problem: salty soils and irrigation water.

Salty soil and irrigation water makes it more difficult for plants to take up water through their roots. If soil salt levels are high enough, the soil may actually pull water from the plant instead of the other way around, resulting in wilting or even plant death. Conventional plant breeding efforts have produced only modest successes in salt tolerance. The altered tomato plants, however, can thrive in water “50 times saltier than normal.”

The genetic modification allows the plants to produce more of a “transport protein” that helps them to move salt and place it in vacuoles — tiny compartments inside plant cells that keep their contents isolated from the rest of the cell. This prevents the salt from producing toxic effects in the plant. This capability means the plants could actually improve salty soils — not just tolerate them — by removing salt from the soils and storing it in their leaves. The gene that controls the transport protein was taken from Arabidopsis, a small plant from the mustard family that is the “lab rat” of plant research.

Some estimates put the worldwide loss of cropland due to salinity at about 1 percent each year. Even reasonably good-quality irrigation water can gradually increase soil salinity by depositing dissolved salts in the soil over many years. The problem is only going to worsen as fresh water resources are stretched and lower-quality (saltier) sources are brought into use.

This research has implications not only for tomatoes, but for other food crops as well as turf and ornamentals. As fresh water becomes more scarce, more localities are requiring landscapes and golf courses to use recycled effluent water for irrigation. Effluent water is often considerably saltier than drinking water, so salinity management is becoming an increasingly importantly issue for the green industry.

In principle, there's no reason why the same genetic engineering technique wouldn't work with turfgrasses and ornamental plants. It could give us species to use in landscapes that, in many cases, will inevitably become saltier.

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