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Salt of the Earth: Identifying Rice that Grows in Salty Soil

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Growing rice and other crops may be easier in the near future, thanks to a study headed by Sheng Luan, professor of plant and microbial biology.

Luan and his collaborators at the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology in Shanghai, China, have identified the genetic variation that helps some varieties of rice plants thrive in salty soils.

Anywhere from one-third to one-half of the world’s cropland has some problem with soil salinity, in part because irrigation water leaves salt behind when it evaporates.

“We wanted to isolate a salt tolerance gene not only because rice is a staple food in many parts of the world, but also because it serves as a model for other cereals like corn, wheat, and barley,” says Luan.

The research shows an allelic variation in SKC1, a gene that encodes a sodium-specific transporter. Rice plants with this trait cope with salt stress by recirculating sodium ions throughout the plant, preventing the toxic buildup that would otherwise block nutrients.

Although many plants have a complex network of specialized genes to respond to salt stress, Luan’s study of the gene SKC1 has been essential to understanding whole-plant salt circulation.

What’s next? Luan and his collaborators in China are working to introduce the salt-tolerant variant of the gene into the salt-sensitive varieties of rice that are important food crops, a move that could improve food yields.

-Stephanie Tran


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