36. Overcoming Salt Toxicity - Nifty 50
Almost one-third of the irrigated land on earth is not suitable for growing crops because it is contaminated with high levels of salt. More farmable land is lost through high salt levels in soil than is gained through the clearing of forest resources.
Most plants are highly sensitive to salty conditions, which cause stress and significant biochemical change due to absorption and influx of sodium from the salty soil.
However, NSF-funded scientists are studying approaches that will lead to plants that can tolerate salty growing conditions. In recent years, it has become clear that cells of higher plants are capable of adjusting to high levels of salt. In fact, if exposed in a gradual manner, plants can grow and reproduce during exposure to very high concentrations of sodium.
"Turning on" processes
What distinguishes salt-tolerant species from susceptible plants is the ability to use or "turn on" this process when necessary. By understanding the signaling system that allows a plant to sense excess sodium in the environment and then make necessary adjustments, plant biologists will be able to influence the growth of crop plants in arid and inhospitable conditions.
Work at the University of Arizona and other university labs is under way to identify what determines or causes salt tolerance in plants. This research has led to the identification of a location in the plant genetic code necessary for salt tolerance.
Original publication date: April 2000