Of the earth's 57 million square miles of land, only about 12 million (21%) can be used for growing crops - and that amount is diminishing by 1% every three years. The new research will make it possible to grow plants and crops in saline earth - land that has been affected by too much salt in soil or in irrigation water. Brinn reports that modern methods of irrigation and fertilization of crops have caused much of the arable lands around the world to become saline.
Prof. Nevo's team studied fungi in the Dead Sea, which is ten times more salty than the oceans. "We became interested in the fungi's genetic resources," Nevo said, "[asking] what made them thrive in the salty Dead Sea."
A common fungal species known as Eurotium herbariorum was isolated from the lake. One of Nevo's doctoral students, Yan Jin, from China, then isolated and sequenced the HOG gene that is responsible, in concert with other genes, for the fungus' ability to defend itself from the salinity of the Dead Sea.
The gene was introduced into 'saccharomyces cerevisiae' - better known as baker's yeast - and the team observed that the resultant transgenic yeast was able to tolerate more salt than normal. The new yeast was also able to better withstand extreme heat and cold.
The results of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS] of the United States. The next step was to transfer the gene into the model plants Arabi-dopsis - successfully making it salt-resistant.
"The genetic salt resistant resources of the Dead Sea could be very important for revolutionizing saline agriculture around the world," Nevo concluded. "If we can transform this gene and other genes we've cloned, we'll be able to improve crop production by making them salt tolerant and enable the growth of crops like wheat in a tepid desert area. Our goal is to develop a battery of salt resistant genes to be used for crop improvement."