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BYU researchers find a way to grow crops in salty soil

(Alfalfa from Russell Jones' farm in Nephi. Credit: Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, file.)

PROVO – Imagine being able to grow crops in areas that have been unusable in the past.  Microbiologists from BYU say they’ve found a way to protect crops in very salty soil.

There are plenty of plants that can grow in salty conditions, but, Microbiology Professor Brent Nielsen says we wouldn’t ever use those plants as crops.  However, they’ve been able to isolate 40 different kinds of bacteria found in those salt-tolerant plants.

Nielsen says someone asked, “Could we take some of this bacteria associated with these other plants and use them to inoculate a crop plant?”

They experimented with alfalfa seeds in their labs and greenhouses and found the alfalfa grew in soil roughly one-third as salty as ocean water.  That level of salinity would have killed alfalfa, normally.

Nielsen believes the bacteria does several different things to keep the plants alive.  First, they may take away some of the salt content from the dirt.  Second, it forms a protective biofilm around the roots of the crops.

“The other thing we know is that the bacteria can produce certain compounds that stimulate plant growth, directly,” Nielsen says.

These bacteria have also shown promise with other kinds of plants.

“We have collaborators that we have worked with in Virginia and they tested it on rice.  So, we’ve seen similar, very encouraging growth stimulation with rice,” he says, adding, “We’re starting to do some work with other plants.  We’ve chosen green beans and lettuce.”

Nielsen acknowledges the plants they’ve grown aren’t as strong as they would be in healthy soil, but, they’re planning to combine other bacteria they’ve isolated to see if their crops can grow even stronger.  He says this could change farming all over the world since soils in the U.S., China, Australia and the Middle East are getting saltier.