The National Land and Water Resources Audit estimates that 5.7 million hectares of Australia are at high risk from dryland salinity, and by 2050 it could encompass 17 million hectares of prime agricultural land.
Professor Mrinal Bhave, and doctoral researcher, Shanthi Joseph, from Swinburne’s Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, along with Dr Daniel Murphy from the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, believe the solution to salinity can be found in Australia’s ancient gene pool.
“Many Australian plants, especially the salt bushes and acacias, are highly salt-tolerant and can grow in conditions which cause most other vegetation and crops to die,” Professor Bhave said.
“Over recent decades there have been some outstanding practical experiments by farmers and land managers where salinized land has been reclaimed by planting them,” she said.
“What we still do not know is how these salt tolerant species do it. There is a great and complex biochemical secret within their genes, and we are trying to work out what it is.
“This knowledge, in turn, will lead us to new species and better methods in the fight against salt, as well as fresh opportunities in agriculture and landscape management.”
Salinity not only affects Australia, it encompasses an estimated 77 million hectares of land worldwide, including some of the world’s key food bowl regions.
Professor Bhave and Ms Joseph have been using data on 1000-plus acacia species, compiled by Dr Murphy, to carry out intensive biochemical and genetic investigations with the aim of explaining how these plants deal with salt.
“There appears to be several different pathways for handling salt, some plants take it in and isolate or excrete it, others may filter it in the roots or exclude it at the roots,” Professor Bhave said.
Using genetic markers and working from four Acacia species known to be salt tolerant, the team has so far identified approximately 30 other species of Acacia with similar characteristics. The team is now preparing to test those plants to see how they cope with very salty conditions, and determine which ones perform best.
“This knowledge will not only benefit Australian farmers and landscape managers, but in time may help to defuse emerging salinity crises in many other parts of the world,” Professor Bhave said.
The salinity research features in issue 3 of Venture Magazine.
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