Crop agriculture has succeeded because growers have identified and cultivated useful plant variants through selective breeding and environmental alterations. Transgenic technology improves the precision of agriculture, modifying crops in ways that are uniquely useful that probably would not have arisen naturally.

Salt tolerance is one such coveted trait. Recent research on promoting salt tolerance through transgenesis focuses on boosting salt-sequestering physiological mechanisms within species, and transferring this ability from the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana to selected crop species.

Underlying all of the approaches to making salt-tolerant crops is a nod to nature. "Organisms solved problems using their genomes for eons, through evolution. Rather than trying to outguess them, we let organisms tell us what mechanisms they can use to overcome stress," explains Ry Wagner, vice president for research at Exelixis Plant Sciences Inc. in Portland, Ore.

If going the genetically modified (GM) route to making crops salt tolerant can...

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