Saltwater Serendipity

It started with a simple error.

The young rice plants were carefully ordered in the greenhouse, arranged in rows labeled with their specific transgenic modification. All conditions controlled, the stage was set for an experiment to determine if the transgenic manipulation in these strains of rice would improve photosynthesis and, therefore, yield.

But instead they looked puny. Or, most of them did. One was noticeably stronger.

That’s when one of the greenhouse workers uncovered the mistake. The plants had all been repeatedly doused with high doses of salt water.

Experiment foiled, right? Not exactly. The botched experiment showed one strain that was thriving in high salinity. And that could be important: imagine a strain of rice that could survive irrigation with brackish water. In places like Bangladesh where sea levels are rapidly rising, crop land is under incursion by salt water. A salt-tolerant rice could reverse the losses.

And so a new project was launched by the TechAccel team: an analysis of salt tolerance in transgenic rice.

The moment of serendipity might have gone unnoticed under other circumstances. After all, the company conducting the work was focused on photosynthesis, not salinity. A start-up does not typically have the luxury of expanding into a new line of research. Most are reined in by investors watching every expense, schedule slip, or change to plans.


In this case, however, TechAccel was willing to fund the science advancement research to examine if this really is a salt-tolerant phenotype. If it works, the young company will have a second product line, with a built-in market. It’s no secret that major seed producers like Pioneer, Syngenta and Monsanto would welcome a product like this.

So, fast forward: We’ve expanded the experiment to rice and setaria viridis, a kind of foxtail millet, to determine if these plants truly demonstrate salt tolerance. In the next couple of months, we’ll have the initial data.

Next steps will be to uncover the mode of action in the plant and understand how strong the trait is. We’ll be looking for other transgenes or tweaks to improve results.

There will be plenty of repeat experiments, too, and additional designs to test against controls without the transgene as well as against current varieties that show salinity resistance. It’s too early to tell if we have a winner.

But we have a feeling there’s an element of win here no matter what – in the complementary knowledge we’ve acquired and the demonstration of our strategic approach to science. Even if it starts with a little saltwater serendipity.