A fungus that thrives in the high salt levels of the Dead Sea may just be the answer to drought and famine around the world.
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Tourists love to come to Israel’s Dead Sea. The high salt content allows people to float in the water without needing to swim. Just don’t open your eyes under the water. The Sea’s minerals have long been mined by the Dead Sea Works for use in all sorts of beauty products and tourists from around the world coat themselves in Dead Sea mud when visiting.
But the Dead Sea is called that for a reason. Its absurdly high salt level is 34% – the fourth highest of any body of water in the world and almost ten times the general levels of the world’s oceans – has made it void of any noticeable life. No fish or plants or even sea weed can be found there.
However, there are certain types of life that apparently thrive in its high salt content water. One is a fungus called Eurotium Rubrum, a filamentous yellow fungus found in the depths of the Dead Sea.
It is the most common fungal species isolated from Dead Sea water, from its surface to its bottom at the depth of 300m. E. Rubrum’s higher salt tolerance is the result of a complicated network of many genes and pathways that interact with each other. The Genetic resources in the Dead Sea could potentially be harnessed for engineering transgenic organisms with enhanced stress tolerance, thereby advancing saline agriculture.
Eurotium Rubrum is currently being studied by scientists from the U.S, Germany and Israel who want to understand how the fungus can so easily thrive in salt. They hope to be able to learn how to better adapt certain types of fruits and vegetables for cultivation in areas where there is more brackish salt water. This will certainly be a great breakthrough in a world whose supplies of fresh water are ever dwindling or being contaminated.
The scientists on the project, Eviatar Nevo from the University of Haifa in Israel, Igor Grigoriev of the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, and Gerhard Rambold of the University of Bayreuth, Germany, published their findings in the May 9th issue of Nature Communications.
The findings state 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.”
As for the practical applications of their study the scientists stated, “Understanding the long-term adaptation of cells and organisms to high salinity is of great importance in a world with increasing desertification and salinity. 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 principle 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.”
If the genetic codes of E. Rubrum can be unlocked and the secrets to how it adapts to such a salty environment can be learned, then scientists might be able to find ways to make certain crops adapt to saltier waters in the same way.
It could also moot the need for adding salt to our salads, but lets hope that we don’t end up with salty oranges.