Molecular Biology

Agriculture in arid and semi-arid regions places an extreme burden on water resources, and at increasing rates, farmers in these regions are turning to other sources of water that are more saline such as municipal wastewater and brackish water.

Irrigation with saline water, or growing crops in salt-affected soils has adverse effects on plant physiology and development which limits growth and productivity. Plant tolerance to salinity constraint involves complex and integrated functions including control of Na+ uptake, translocation, and compartmentalization. It involves the ability of the plant to maintain efficient root K+ uptake in the presence of high Na+ concentrations, and to tightly control net Na+ uptake by the roots and Na+ translocation and accumulation in leaves, as young leaves and photosynthetic tissues are very sensitive to salt stress.

Plant biotechnology research can contribute to solve the problem of salinity in agriculture by generating new salt tolerant crops either by molecular breeding (QTLs and marker assisted selection) or genetic engineering technologies (genetically modified crops). 

Abiotic stresses are multigenic traits thereby involving many genes. Sodium exclusion from the shoot is the most studied trait that had contributed to enhanced salinity tolerance in different crops. Moreover, signaling processes are considered as major determinants of stress tolerance. The manipulation of signaling factors has produced the most impressive results arguably because they control a broad range of down-stream events, which results in superior tolerance. Effective expression systems, including cell type-specific and stress-inducible promoters will be required to fine-tune the plant response to stress according to the situation that plants are facing.

ICBA's approach to improve agriculture in marginal environments is to increase salinity tolerance of existing crops such as barley, pearl millet and date palm. The major aim of the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory at ICBA is to conduct research to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying plant responses to harsh environments such as soil salinity and use a combination of genetic, genomics and transcriptomics to analyze various levels of gene regulation and to understand stress tolerance. Discovered genes and favorable alleles for salinity tolerance will be delivered to commercial crops using GM technology or marker assisted selection.