Alternatives to GM wheat
Drought and salinity are serious problems for large swathes of Australia’s wheat growing regions. While some boldly claim that GM crops are the magic bullet solution, Marked Assisted Selection (MAS) is much more likely to produce plants that can cope with these hostile conditions.
Marker Assisted Section utilises knowledge of genes and DNA to ‘speed up’ conventional breeding without the risk of creating a GM organism. While MAS uses genetic markers to identify desired traits, no gene is artificially transferred from one organism into another one. Specific DNA fragments (markers), which are closely linked to specific traits, are identified. After crossing, the offspring is screened for the presence of the marker, and hence the desired trait. It is more effective than traditional breeding because there is no need to grow the plant under stress conditions to identify the presence of the desired trait. Many successful varieties of drought and salinity tolerant crops have already been produced using conventional breeding.
In Australia, these successes include Drysdale and Rees4 drought-tolerant wheat varieties. Drysdale is now a flagship CSIRO product . CSIRO has also successfully developed salt tolerant durum wheat (typically used for making pasta) using MAS that yields 25% more grain in saline soils. Recent trials of CSIRO salt-tolerant MAS bread wheat also showed a 25% yield increase.
New screening techniques for salt tolerant varieties of barley are also encouraging. Plant breeders can now combine modern selection techniques, such as IR thermography, with traditional plant breeding to produce more salt tolerant wheat and barley varieties.