Two new lines of salt-tolerant plants, boasting genes from wheat and a wild relative called wheatgrass, may someday prove to be a boon for wheat growers. Salt tolerance in plants is a prized trait, according to Agricultural Research Service research geneticist Richard Wang. He developed the new plants, known simply as W4909 and W4910, at ARS' Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

Salt tolerance is especially valuable in the irrigated wheat producing regions of the American West, where irrigation can accelerate buildup of salts. Salinity weakens or kills plants. Nationwide, it's blamed for reducing crop yields by about 25 percent.

Wang's research has already attracted the attention of scientists and plant breeders throughout the United States and from several other nations as well. He is working to demystify the complicated genetics of rangeland plants, including wheatgrass. The goal? — Develop hardier, more nutritious rangeland forages for cattle, other livestock and wildlife. These improved plants also could be used to revegetate roadsides, burned sites or erosion-prone slopes.

W4909 and W4910 contain salt-tolerance genes from wheatgrass and what's known as a Ph-inhibitor gene. Presence of the inhibitor gene allows plant geneticists to move the salt-tolerance genes among domestic wheats. Normally, a gene called Ph1b would thwart that exchange.

Californians involved

For the research, Wang collaborated with ARS geneticist Steven R. Larson of the Logan team; Catherine M. Grieve, a plant physiologist at the agency's George E. Brown Jr., Salinity Laboratory at Riverside, Calif.; Michael C. Shannon, formerly at Riverside and now with ARS' Pacific West Area Office, Albany, Calif.; Abdul Mujeeb-Kazi of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center; and four visiting scientists from China — Zanmin Hu, Xiaomei Li, Jiyi Zhang and Xueyong Zhang.

Wang and his co-investigators are the first to use the Ph1b gene-inhibition technology to incorporate, into wheat genetic material, genes borrowed from another plant species. Details are in the January issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine, available online at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jan03/salin0103.htm