Agriculture is currently facing one of its greatest challenges: to meet the world’s future food security and sustainability needs, food production must grow substantially despite the availability of productive land and water resources is shrinking dramatically. We now know that we have to use saline land and waters in order to solve agriculture’s great challenge. Nevertheless, despite significant efforts in the last decades from researchers and breeders to improve salt tolerance in crops, there is still much work to do. The big question that the HALO project poses is: could halophytes help us to address agriculture’s great challenge?
So what is a halophyte? Halophytes are naturally “salt-loving” plants and represent 2% of terrestrial plant species that can complete their life cycle and thrive in NaCl-rich environments where most of the remaining species cannot survive. Halophytes’ ability to thrive in saline soils has increasing potential in a world where most known agricultural crop are salt-sensitive glycophytes and where changes in climate and land use will increase resources salinisation. Indeed, halophytes could represent the “silver bullet” approach for maintaining food supply over the coming years as they could play an important role as crops in their own right and also as models for generating salt tolerance in traditional crops.
The HALO project focuses on unraveling how dicotyledonous halophytes deal with excessive cytotoxic Na and Cl. Given that dicotyledonous halophytes rely heavily on vacuolar Na sequestration, an in-depth understanding of the underlying mechanisms enabling the efficient Na and Cl sequestration would provide key information to understand salt tolerance and implement successfully this feature in glycophytes. Finally, some halophytes have also evolved the ability to sequester cytotoxic Na and Cl in specialised external structures called salt bladders, which represent a unique unexplored avenue for bladder cell-based desalination breeding in glycophytes.
The project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant.