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Plant gene discovery could boost phosphorus access and uptake

The super-high oleic safflower was developed by CSIRO plant scientists over 18 years and yields up to 93 per cent oil.
Photo: Carl Davies, CSIRO

The CLE53 gene, which regulates cooperation between fungi and plants, is central to a mechanism that controls how receptive plants are to working with mycorrhizal fungi.

“Similar genes are found in all plants – including agricultural crops. So, by mutating or turning off the CLE53 gene in a crop plant, it is more likely for a plant to become symbiotically involved with a fungus. In doing so, it becomes possible to reduce the need for phosphorus fertilisers, as plants improve at absorbing pre-existent phosphorus from soil,” Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences Assistant Professor Thomas Christian de Bang says.

According to the Danish scientists, it is estimated that about 70 per cent of phosphorus fertiliser used in the country’s agricultural production accumulates in soil, while only 30 per cent of it reaches plants.

Frost-tolerant wheat research underway

Activating the anti-frost proteins already present in wheat is the aim of researchers in Western Australia to save growers millions in lost productivity, with the state’s growers losing up to $400 million annually when cold fronts roll in and freeze the forming grain.

Plant biotechnologists at Murdoch University, led by Professor Michael Jones, have secured funding for a two-year project utilising gene-editing technology to undertake proof of concept that it is possible to make Australian wheat varieties more frost-tolerant.

Winter wheat grown in Europe is able to withstand pre-flowering freezing conditions, so the research team is looking to activate the same process in Australian varieties during flowering.

“What the European wheat observations tell us is that there are some anti-frost proteins present in wheat already; they stop ice crystals forming during frost and cold conditions,” Professor Jones says.

“The problem is that although they are expressed in young leaves and young plants, they are not expressed at the time when damaging frosts occur in Australia.”

The target  is to develop wheat lines with an additional 2oC of frost tolerance, Professor Jones says.

Australian-developed GM safflower shows biofuel use promise

Following recent commercial trials in NSW and Victoria, Australian scientists are excited about the potential of GM safflower as a plant-based alternative to petroleum-based engine oils, which can be recycled, reused and safely broken down in the environment.

According to the developers, initial studies show safflower oil to be a superior lubricant that has lower emissions than conventional petroleum-based products and reduces friction and wear on engine components.

The super-high oleic safflower was developed by CSIRO plant scientists over 18 years.  The result is a variety that yields up to 93 per cent oil – the highest level of purity in any available plant oils.

Oleic acid is a lubricating compound with a range of uses, from heart pacemakers to cosmetics.

Scientists at Melbourne’s La Trobe University are screening and assessing countless varieties of the crop in order to set up a new germplasm collection to generate varieties suitable to a range of conditions and climates.

Researchers at Montana State University’s Advanced Fuel Center in the United States have been comparing the safflower oil’s performance under heat and pressure with conventional oil in a large diesel engine and have labelled the results as more than promising.

Go Resources, an Australian company, has the commercial rights to the hybrid safflower variety, with royalties also generated for CSIRO.

Sodium content discovery could boost barley yields

An international team of scientists, including some from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (PEB), has identified a naturally occurring gene variation that influences sodium content in barley crops. The finding could help advance the development of barley varieties with greater yield and better resilience to varying salt conditions.

“Our discovery of how variation in this barley sodium transport gene influences grain sodium content could bring benefit to breeders and researchers,” Dr Caitlin Byrt from PEB and the Australian National University says.

“There is potential to use the markers and material we have developed to optimise processes controlling barley quality and germination,” Dr Byrt says.

“Seed germination is negatively affected by salinity, and sodium can become a problem when in excess. But it can also be an advantage as an osmotic regulator. This means that tailoring grain sodium content to target different environments could be advantageous.”

The findings represent five years of research and offer a path forward in dealing with salinity, a significant problem in Australia, with potential to negatively affect crop growth in almost 70 per cent of cereal growing regions.

Innovations for sustainable food system transition

An international team of almost 50 experts coordinated by Professor Mario Herrero from CSIRO has identified 75 emerging innovations and eight action points that can help speed up the transition to a sustainable and healthy food system.

The emerging innovations outlined include genome editing, vertical agriculture, nitrogen-fixing crops that do not need fertiliser, and the use of insects for food and feed. The action points span the entire food value chain, from production and processing to consumption and waste management.

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