CONVENTIONAL approaches to wheat salinity tolerance are being challenged by The University of Western Australia PhD student Bhagya Dissanayake.
Ms Dissanayake's research used cutting-edge proteomic technologies to explore the salt stress-related adaptations in the roots of different bread wheat varieties.
"As the proteins are the key players of metabolism, as well as the ones which determine the phenotype of the plants, it's essential to study how the root proteome changes under salinity," Ms Dissanayake said.
The research results identified molecular mechanisms associated with better adaptations on roots under salinity stress conditions and putative root protein biomarkers, which could be used to screen breeding populations of wheat to identify which wheat varieties have better adaptations to grow under salinity stress.
"With this information and my expertise I can now predict which genes would need to be altered to increase root salt tolerance," Ms Dissanayake said.
"The putative protein biomarkers identified in this study could be used to screen the breeding populations to select the wheat cultivars that have better adaptations to salt stress.
"My research also provided understanding of metabolic pathways in roots to withstand under salinity stress conditions, further it highlighted metabolic changes leading to salt sensitivity in the roots of the less tolerant cultivars.
"In the future, genetic engineering approaches such as CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to engineer these salt sensitive molecular targets in order to improve the overall salt tolerance of wheat."
The current loss of agricultural productivity due to salinity damage is estimated to be worth at least $519 million per year in Western Australia.
Agencies also expect the extent of salinity affected land in the South West to increase to 5.4 million hectares in the next 100 years.
Conventional breeding approaches to create salt tolerant wheat have mostly focused on 'above ground' changes, leaving the roots largely untouched.
"This is striking, as the root is the first tissue which is in contact with salt and it's the tissue responsible for nutrient uptake and ultimately driving plant growth," Ms Dissanayake said.
"To further improve salt tolerance I think we really need to focus on new molecular markers associated with the complex trait of root tolerance to salt."
Ms Dissanayake has always wanted to study agriculture and contribute to the food production industry since she was a young scientist.
She was drawn to Australian grains as the industry feeds people all over the world, with more than 95 per cent of Australian grown wheat exported to Asia and the Middle East.
"As the demand for food continues to grow with increasing world population, innovative solutions are needed to address these problems," she said.
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