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Research Project: Enhancing Specialty Crop Tolerance to Saline Irrigation Waters

Location: Agricultural Water Efficiency and Salinity Research

Project Number: 2036-13210-012-00-D
Project Type: In-House Appropriated

Start Date: Aug 13, 2018
End Date: Aug 12, 2023

Objective 1: Generate new tools and techniques for studying and understanding plant responses to salt stress in high value specialty crop plants. Sub-objective 1A: Determine the importance of ion uptake and ion ratios during salinity stress, with emphasis on Na+ and Cl-. Sub-objective 1B: Evaluate the effect of endophytes on the salinity tolerance of horticultural crops. Sub-objective 1C: Determine the effect of priming using different biochemicals to increase salt tolerance in crop plants. Sub-objective 1D: Conduct expression analyses and characterize genes involved in salt tolerance in crop plants. Objective 2: Identify and develop plant material with improved salt tolerance, enabling use of low quality water/alternative waters for irrigation. Sub-objective 2A: Generate and screen alfalfa populations segregating for the component traits of the salt tolerance mechanism to select genotypes with high tolerance to salt. Sub-objective 2B: Identify markers (molecular or biochemical) for salt tolerance and use them in marker assisted selection (MAS) to improve alfalfa germplasm.

This project focuses on salinity responses and underlying mechanisms of high-value specialty crops that includes alfalfa, strawberry, almond, spinach, tomato, eggplant and pepper. In objective 1, we concentrate on understanding relative importance of sodium ions (Na+) and choride ions (Cl-) which will lead to improved prediction of plant response to salinity. Also, the relative importance of Na+ and Cl- may become instrumental in refining breeding or genetic improvement efforts of specific crops. Understanding the mechanism of how plants use Na+ to maintain growth and ion homeostasis may help in development of lines with higher Na+ tissue tolerance. We intend to explore new technologies such as effect of endophytes and priming on salinity tolerance of horticultural crops. The interactions of endophytes/priming with crops will increase knowledge of mechanisms used by plants against abiotic stresses. This knowledge has the potential to mitigate salinity effects on crops with rapid implementation. To understand the genetic changes happening in a genome in response to salinity, we plan to conduct expression and Ribonucleic acid sequencing (RNA-Seq) analyses followed by functional validation of selected genes using model plants. Studying expression of important genes characterized in model plants may help in identifying critical genes involved in salt tolerance of high-value crops. Global gene expression changes detected via RNA-Seq analysis may detect genes or mechanisms that are specific to a particular species. Furthermore, interactions among different pathways may provide a bigger picture of the whole process. Functional complementation of Arabidopsis mutants with candidate genes will confirm evolutionary conservation of the genes involved in the salt tolerance mechanism. This will facilitate development of molecular marker based assays for these genes to screen genotypes tolerant to salt. Additionally, these genes may be manipulated in alfalfa and strawberries for improved salt tolerance. In objective 2, we intend to generate and screen alfalfa populations segregating of the component traits of the salt tolerance mechanism to select genotypes with high tolerance to salt and develop markers for salt tolerance for marker assisted selection (MAS). Crossing genotypes differing for the component traits may lead to development of genotypes with combination of multiple component traits. Pyramiding genes for different component traits will provide enhanced salt tolerance in some of the alfalfa segregating lines. Screening these for salt tolerance will lead to identification of superior lines, which can then be molecularly tested for the presence of the component traits. In addition to selecting for salt tolerant lines we will be able to able to determine importance of different component traits of the salt tolerance mechanism. Once importance of the genes involved in the component traits of the salt tolerance mechanism has been established, molecular markers developed from these lines can be used in MAS. MAS will result in fast and efficient selection of genotypes for salt tolerance.