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Improving crop salt tolerance

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 11:30 authored by Tim Flowers
Salinity is an ever-present threat to crop yields, especially in countries where irrigation is an essential aid to agriculture. Although the tolerance of saline conditions by plants is variable, crop species are generally intolerant of one-third of the concentration of salts found in seawater. Attempts to improve the salt tolerance of crops through conventional breeding programmes have met with very limited success, due to the complexity of the trait: salt tolerance is complex genetically and physiologically. Tolerance often shows the characteristics of a multigenic trait, with quantitative trait loci (QTLs) associated with tolerance identified in barley, citrus, rice, and tomato and with ion transport under saline conditions in barley, citrus and rice. Physiologically salt tolerance is also complex, with halophytes and less tolerant plants showing a wide range of adaptations. Attempts to enhance tolerance have involved conventional breeding programmes, the use of in vitro selection, pooling physiological traits, interspecific hybridization, using halophytes as alternative crops, the use of marker-aided selection, and the use of transgenic plants. It is surprising that, in spite of the complexity of salt tolerance, there are commonly claims in the literature that the transfer of a single or a few genes can increase the tolerance of plants to saline conditions. Evaluation of such claims reveals that, of the 68 papers produced between 1993 and early 2003, only 19 report quantitative estimates of plant growth. Of these, four papers contain quantitative data on the response of transformants and wild-type of six species without and with salinity applied in an appropriate manner. About half of all the papers report data on experiments conducted under conditions where there is little or no transpiration: such experiments may provide insights into components of tolerance, but are not grounds for claims of enhanced tolerance at the whole plant level. Whether enhanced tolerance, where properly established, is due to the chance alteration of a factor that is limiting in a complex chain or an effect on signalling remains to be elucidated. After ten years of research using transgenic plants to alter salt tolerance, the value of this approach has yet to be established in the field.


Publication status

  • Published


Journal of Experimental Botany




Oxford University Press





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Department affiliated with

  • Evolution, Behaviour and Environment Publications


Times Cited: 339 Flowers, TJ

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