March 12/Adelaide, Australia/Bloomberg Businessweek-- Australian scientists bred salt tolerance into durum wheat for the first time, boosting grain yields by 25% in saline soils, according to the University of Adelaide.

The scientists introduced a salt-tolerant gene from a wheat relative into a commercial variety of durum wheat using traditional breeding methods in first-of-its-kind research that may boost food security, the university wrote in a statement on its website.

Increased salt levels have degraded 20% of the world’s farm land and are a “particular” problem in the main wheat-growing regions of Australia, the world’s second-largest exporter of the grain, according to the university. Irrigation and evaporation can cause salt build up.

“This work is significant, as salinity already affects over 20% of the world’s agricultural soils, and salinity poses an increasing threat to food production,” Rana Munns, co-lead author of the research and a scientist with Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, was cited as saying in the statement.

Domestication and breeding have reduced genetic diversity of modern wheat, leaving the grain more vulnerable to environmental stress including high salt levels in soil. The scientists discovered the salt-tolerance gene in Triticum monococcum, or einkorn wheat, one of the earliest cultivated forms of wheat.

“Salty soils are a major problem because if sodium starts to build up in the leaves it will affect important processes such as photosynthesis, which is critical to the plant’s success,” said Matthew Gilliham, the senior author of a paper on the research published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The gene works by producing a protein that helps remove sodium from the leaves, the university said. Salt-tolerant types of durum, the hard-wheat variety used to make couscous and pasta, may be commercially available “in the near future,” according to Munns.

Adding the gene did not affect durum-wheat yields in normal conditions and boosted productivity by as much as 25% in salty conditions, according to Richard James, the CSIRO researcher who led the field trials.

The scientists have also crossed the salt-tolerance gene into bread wheat, and are assessing the results in field trials, the university said.

 From the March 13, 2012, Prepared Foods' Daily News.