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Salinity and Climate: New Protein Helps Plants Grow

Sep 09, 2015 12:14 PM EDT

Researchers have developed a protein that helps plants grow in salty soils. This could help in future growth of more salt-tolerant crops.

"More and more of the world's crops are facing salt stress with high salt in soils (also known as salinity) affecting 20 percent of the total, and 33 percent of irrigated, agricultural lands worldwide, " Professor Staffan Persson, study leader from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and formerly at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, said in a news release. He noted that unlike humans, plants are stuck and can't move away from the salty snacks or drink more water.

"By 2050 it is estimated that we need to increase our production of food by 70 percent to feed an additional 2.3 billion people. Salinity is a major limiting factor for this goal as more than 50 percent of the arable land may be salt afflicted by the year 2050," Persson explained in the release. "It is therefore of great agricultural importance to find genes and mechanisms that can improve plant growth under such conditions. "

The researchers found that a previously unknown family of proteins supports the cellulose-producing protein complex, called cellulose synthase, under salty conditions. This synthase, or enzyme that starts up a synthesis process, is important for plant cells' shape and stability. This new family of proteins was named Companions of Cellulose synthase (CC). Their findings were recently published in the journal Cell.

(Photo : Cell )
Plants with CC proteins (wild type) grow better in salty conditions.

"Plants need to make bigger cells and more of them if they want to grow and develop," Persson added. "Unlike animal cells, plant cells are surrounded by a cellular exoskeleton, called cell walls, which direct plant growth and protect the plant against diseases. Importantly, most of the plants biomass is made up of the cell wall with cellulose being the major component."

When plants are exposed to high salt concentrations, the CC gene activity is increased. From this, the researchers hypothesized that the proteins were involved in salt tolerance of plants. 

(Photo : Flickr: Jerry Kirkhart)
Salt grass (pictured here) thrives in salty soils.

The control plants of the study could keep their microtubules intact, while the plants lacking the CC activity were unable to do so. This failure explains the decreased plant growth in salty soils and helps researchers understand the CC gene for future plant development. 

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