The Dead Sea may hold the genetic answer to supporting life as the world's oceans grow increasingly more saline, scientists from Israel, Germany, and the United States say. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy. The Dead Sea may hold the genetic answer to supporting life as the world's oceans grow increasingly more saline, scientists from Israel, Germany, and the United States say. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy. Despite its name, the Dead Sea supports algae, bacteria and fungi.

Dead Sea fungus could revolutionize saline agriculture

New discovery could lay groundwork for growing crops in desert and high-salt environments.

As the world’s supply of fresh groundwater goes dry, an international team of scientists is studying a fungus called Eurotium rubrum that lives in one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water - the Dead Sea.

By learning how the fungus survives in the brackish depths, along with algae and bacteria, agronomists may soon develop hardier types of fruits and vegetables suited to an increasingly salty coastal environment. Found deep in the world’s fourth-saltiest body of water, the filamentous fungus thrives in water with 34.2 percent salinity, 9.6 times as high as that of the ocean. While most other life forms avoid such salty conditions, the fungus has developed a unique way of making it all work.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was led by researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute, and the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

“Understanding the long-term adaptation of cells and organisms to high salinity is of great importance in a world with increasing desertification and salinity,” University of Haifa researcher Eviatar Nevo said in a news release. “The observed functional and structural adaptations provide new insight into the mechanisms that help organisms to survive under such extreme environmental conditions, but also point to new targets like the biotechnological improvement of salt tolerance in crops.”

In experiments at the University of Haifa, researchers recreated conditions in the laboratory to simulate the Dead Sea’s environment 20 years ago, when algae bloomed in a 30 percent diluted mixture of saltwater. As expected, the fungus grew even more robustly in the watered-down version of the Dead Sea, just as it did naturally about a generation ago.

But even more interesting was how the fungus responded to higher salinity in the water: It stopped growing but nevertheless survived. Researcher Alfons R. Weig, of the University of Bayreuth, says the fungal cells appeared tightly controlled by genetics to prevent salt from entering.  The experiments show “that the fungus tries to cope ‘actively’ with its extreme environment and does not simply fall into dormancy as might be expected by the greatly reduced growth rates.”

“In principle," the researchers said, "this discovery could revolutionize saline agriculture worldwide by laying the groundwork of understanding necessary to appropriately using salt-resistant genes and gene networks in crops to enable them to grow in desert and saline environments."

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