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Drought: Saving Water with Plant Genetics, Breeding Salt Tolerance

Jun 26, 2015 03:36 PM EDT
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As arid conditions increase in various parts of the nation and world, scientists focus are focusing on using drought-resistant plants and increasing the number of plants able to use treated wastewater that still contains salt. The less water for plants, the more clean water for humans. 

Athletic fields and golf courses remain heavy users of water. Golf courses alone use approximately 750 billion gallons of water annually in arid regions. Most plants on the fields still cannot tolerate a lot of salt.

Researcher Stacy Bonos, at the Department of Plant Biology & Pathology at Rutgers University, and her team recently published their research on perennial ryegrass in Crop Science journal. They've found that perennial ryegrass is controlled by additive genetic effects rather than environmental effects, meaning that salt tolerance can be bred for.

Bonos' research team measured salt tolerance using something called "visual percent green color"--the percentage of the plant that is green and actively growing, as compared to brown and therefore dying, according to a release.

They also conducted experiments to confirm salt tolerance, including looking at broad-sense heritability, according to a release. The latter showed that the trait for salt tolerance has more genetic components than environmental ones.

Other experiments looked at how successfully genetic factors are inherited by plant offspring. For perennial ryegrass, those factors were passed on easily. Breeders like to hear this, because it means that they can select for certain genetic components.

Bonos and the team are working to concentrate genes for salt tolerance, to make turf grass able to use more wastewater and less fresh water, according to a release.

"It most makes sense...in areas like Las Vegas where there may not be much drinkable water available to water your lawn," Bonos said in a release. "That's a prime example."

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