Smart plants hold the key

August 20, 1999

Biotechnology and genetic engineering may offer the solution to Australia's salinity crisis, with scientists hopeful of manipulating agricultural crops to mimic natural vegetation.

"I don't think anyone realised how clever Australia's native plants really are," says Phil Price, manager of a jointly funded CSIRO and Land and Res-ources Research and Development Corporation project to redesign Australia's plant production systems.

"We have been looking at the function of native plants and comparing them with the agricultural systems that replaced them," explains Dr Price.

He adds that whatever the time of year, there was always one native species in the mixed natural communities ready to utilise available water and nutrients.

Some native plants are particularly well adapted to Australia's old, acidic and double horizon soils such as Banksia prionotes, a Western Australian plant that grows in coastal sand plains.

"We are looking at native plant systems, deciding what is crucial to their being in-balance with the water supply, and seeing whether we can build those properties into the existing agricultural systems," says Dr Price.

"We are also going to biotechnologists and saying these are the characteristics we want for crop and pasture plants in Australia, how can we selectively breed or genetically engineer them?"

Dr Price believes advances in understanding the whole plant genome mean scientists may be as few as five years off knowing the gene codes for properties such as deep roots or the ability to grow at low temperatures.

"Then it will be a further 20 years to get them into an economic agricultural plant. We think this R&D programme is a long-term and strategic enterprise," says Dr Price.

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