Partnering Across Continents to Study Salt-Tolerant Plants

Professors from the University of Karachi, Pakistan, work with BYU to find alternative feed crops.

By Dr. Brent L. Nielsen

In many parts of the world, including developing nations, crop productivity has severely decreased. Meanwhile, many regions have seen increasingly poor quality in arable land and fresh water due to an increase in soil salinity caused by long-term irrigation and intense land utilization. Though the land available for crops is decreasing in area and quality, the number of livestock has substantially increased, relying on feed produced on poor-quality land. The current availability of good-quality animal forage is unable to meet the current demands. An urgent need exists to find alternate methods to increase forage production.

HalophytesHalophytes, such as salt marsh grass, are one type of plant that BYU researchers are studying as a possible alternative feed crop. Halophytes are ideal for regions with increasing soil salinity because they grow best in salty soils and have the potential to be developed as agricultural crops. However, little is known about the variety of molecular mechanisms for salinity tolerance used by halophytes. Researchers at BYU are utilizing next-generation RNA sequencing to analyze the transcriptome (expressed genes) of Suaeda fruticosa, a succulent halophyte species with the potential to function as a seed oil or feed crop.

Drs. Ajmal Khan and Bilquees Gul, a husband and wife team of scientists, and their colleagues at the Institute for Sustainable Halophyte Utilization at the University of Karachi, Pakistan, have collaborated with students and professors from within the BYU community. Dr. Brent L. Nielsen from the BYU Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology and Dr. John Prince from Chemistry and Biochemistry are working with Khan and Gul to study the potential agricultural applications of halophytes and the molecular mechanisms that halophytes use for salinity tolerance. Gul spent one year working in the Nielsen lab at BYU to learn molecular biology techniques for this project. Supported by funding from the U.S. Department of State and the Higher Education Council of Pakistan, this research has successfully identified both physiological characteristics and optimal growth conditions for the species, including optimal salt concentration, temperature, and light conditions.

During the research, total RNA is purified from plants grown under no salt, optimal salt, and high salt treatments and then converted to cDNA for sequencing. This process allows researchers to identify the genes that are induced or repressed in the plants grown under optimal salt conditions. With the help of Prince, these results are being correlated with mass spectrometry analysis of proteins to identify the specific genes and proteins involved in salinity tolerance.

BYU graduate student, Joann Arce, has been primarily involved in the RNA sequence analysis. Five undergraduate students have been mentored as part of this project, assisting with preparing plants, isolating DNA and protein samples, and working on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) as well as transcriptome and protein computational analysis. This work has provided the students with valuable experience as they work on a project of international importance for food production. Several of the students have mentioned that they appreciate the different perspectives they have gained about research by working with Dr. Gul during her time at BYU; furthermore, the students have come to appreciate both their cultural differences and the importance of working cooperatively towards specific goals.

As they progress toward the development of an alternative feed crop, the group’s members are preparing to publish their findings. They have published one paper1, and are preparing two other manuscripts, which will include BYU student coauthors. As their work continues, the researchers hope to increase the efficiency of crops in less arable regions and to help sustain food production for people throughout the world.

1. Khan, et al. “Panicum turgidum, a potentially sustainable cattle feed alternative to maize for saline areas.” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 129, no. 4 (February 2009): 542–546.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Brent Nielsen. Suaeda fruticosa halophyte plants.