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Scientists in China have developed a salt-tolerant form of grass that they say could be used to help bring millions of hectares of degraded land back into production.

The team led by Wu Zhongyi of the Beijing Research Center of Agro-Biotechnology published their findings on 2 June in the African Journal of Biotechnology.

The researchers genetically modified tall fescue grass (Festuca arundinacea) by inserting a gene from a relative of mustard called Arabidopsis thaliana.

The modified plants had "remarkable salt tolerance", all growing better than non-modified plants under conditions of high salt stress, say the researchers.

Tall fescue is grown widely in Africa, China and South America as turf and as a forage crop for grazing animals, but soil salinity is becoming increasingly problematic in many areas.

"The development of a salt tolerant tall fescue is an important improvement for this species," says Zengyu Wang of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation's forage improvement division.

"This improved grass has the potential to benefit livestock operations that depend on sustainable forage production," Wang told SciDev.Net.

Rongda Qu, professor of crop sciences at North Carolina State University in the United States says more research is needed to confirm the findings and to work out how the inserted gene confers salt tolerance.

Link to full paper in African Journal of biotechnology  [568KB]

Reference: African Journal of Biotechnology 5, 1041 (2006)