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Infecting crops with a fungus could be an alternative to genetically modifying them to boost yields, say scientists.

In research published this week (20 September) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they showed that barley infected with a fungus called Piriformospora indica had three key advantages over uninfected plants.

As well as being able to grow in salty conditions, the infected barley yielded up to 11 per cent more grain, mainly because each plant had more seed-heads than uninfected barley.

The plants were also better at resisting infection by two disease-causing fungi (Fusarium culmorum and Cochliobolus sativus) that cause considerable economic losses worldwide.

Frank Waller of the University of Giessen in Germany, who led the laboratory-based study, told SciDev.Net that its findings challenge the notion that inducing crop resistance to disease or conditions such as salinity carries the cost of lower yields.

Explaining that barley is used as a model crop for research on other cereals such as rice and wheat, he said the research was important because soil salinity and plant diseases are major global causes of crop loss.

Piriformospora indica, which was recently discovered in India, naturally infects the roots of plants growing in the same environment.

Waller said the fungus could be used to improve the stress and pathogen resistance of other plants that are difficult to genetically modify.

It can easily be grown on a large scale and could become a new tool for sustainable agriculture, he said.

Link to abstract of paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102, 13386 (2005)