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Searching Kazakstan to help solve salinity

Searching Kazakstan to help solve Australia’s salinity problems

A three week stint in Kazakstan searching for wild relatives of a plant they hope will help tame some hostile soil conditions in Australia - that's the immediate prospect facing three Australian agricultural scientists.

The scientists are Geoff Auricht and Steve Hughes of the SA Research and Development Institute and Eric Hall of the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries - and the plant is wild lucerne.

They leave on August 6 to join up with Russian, Chinese and Kazakstan colleagues in this seven-person scientific mission where the aim is to collect a range of wild lucernes growing naturally in acidic, saline and other soil conditions.

Their mission is being supported by growers and the Federal Government through the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the CRC for Plant-based Solutions to Dryland Salinity, and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Mr Auricht explained that lucerne originated in the Middle-East more than 3,000 years ago and was actively traded along the "spice route" between Europe and China. Kazakstan was central along the route and as such was a prime source of genetic diversity in lucerne plants.

He said that lucerne, a leguminous deep-rooted perennial plant, had been widely domesticated over the centuries and grown for its ability to add nitrogen to the soil and as a stock fodder. More recently it had come into prominence as a plant which could keep rising water tables at bay and halt the spread of dryland salinity.

"Lucerne is being increasingly grown in Australia to halt re-charge of watertables and for other purposes - the problem is that the current varieties are not suited to acidic soils and much of the salinity occurring, particularly in WA, NSW ands parts of Victoria, is in areas of acidic soils," Mr Auricht said.

"We hope to find wild lucernes in Kazakstan growing in acid soils, collect the seed and use this to produce plants for crossing programs with local varieties. The plant improvement work will be conducted largely at the SARDI Waite Campus which is home to a very large plant germplasm collection and the major Australian lucerne breeding program

"We will also be looking for acid-tolerant rhizobial bacteria which help lucerne produce the nitrogen and for wild lucernes which are tolerant to salinity, to grazing and to drought and cold conditions."

Mr Auricht, the Leader of SARDI's pasture program, said that while the scientists would primarily concentrate on finding wild lucernes they also hoped to collect other perennial legumes and forage grasses which might be of value in plant breeding programs.

The three Australians are scheduled to return home in early September.

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