Understanding how plants can sustain biomass production under saline growth conditions

A project undertaken at the School of Biosciences, University of Melbouurne and supervised by Staffan Persson

Salinity is major causative factor for global yield losses (1). This is in particular true for Australia, where over 3 million hectares currently are classified as salt affected, and roughly one third of all arable land are predicted to be salt contaminated by 2050 (2). It is therefore of great importance to prevent further soil salinization, but also to generate plants that can grow and produce feed and food on saline soils. Plant growth is sustained by their biomass, which largely consists of cell walls; a carbohydrate-based extracellular matrix that provides stature to the plant and that protect the plant against external stress. Cellulose is the main constituent of cell walls, and is synthesized at the plasma membrane by a large protein complex, referred to as the cellulose synthase (CESA) complex (3). However, we do not have a clear understanding for how the CESA complex maintains its activity during abiotic stress, such as salt. We have identified a protein family, which we call Companions of CESAs (CCs), that protect the CESA activity during salt stress in the mustard plant Arabidopsis (4). While we are obtaining a better picture of how these proteins work in Arabidopsis, we lack insight into how the CC proteins works in crop plants that are of relevance to the Australian agriculture. Our work therefore aims to extend our understanding of the function of the CC protein family with the goal to improve the biomass producing capacity of plants when grown on saline conditions.

  1. Munns and Tester (2008) Annu Rev Plant Biol. 59: 651
  2. Salinity and water quality fact sheet, Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2012
  3. McFarlane et al. (2014) Ann Rev Plant Biol. 65: 69
  4. Endler et al. (2015) Cell. 162: 1353
Figure 1. An Arabidopsis plant immersed in salt. Salinity impacts negatively on plant growth. We hope to improve the biomass producing capacity of plants when grown on salty soil. This is particularly important to Australian agriculture as large arable land areas are, or will become, affected by salt.