The plants that inhabit the salt marsh have the unique ability to survive what other plants can't: daily inundation by salt water. As scientists unlock the secrets of this amazing salt tolerance in marsh plants, we may solve serious problems in several areas, from agriculture to wetland restoration.
On Thursday, September 24, at 7:00 p.m. at the University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies (CMS) in Lewes, botanist Jack Gallagher will present "Solving Problems with Marsh Plants," as part of the Ocean Currents Lecture Series initiated by CMS in honor of the International Year of the Ocean. Gallagher will talk about how marsh plants, called halophytes, cope with salt, and how he and his colleagues are using the tools of biotechnology to adapt these plants to new and diverse uses, from human food and livestock forage, to sludge busters at wastewater treatment facilities.
"If you were to water your house plants or your vegetable garden everyday with saltwater, those plants would wither and die," Gallagher says, "but the plants that live in the salt marsh can tolerate salt. Understanding how this salt-tolerance works will be beneficial to us in several areas. For example, after decades of irrigation, poor drainage, and imbalanced fertilizer, farmland becomes salty," he notes. "In fact, salt hampers productivity in more than 23% of the world's farmland. Since salt-marsh plants have evolved mechanisms to cope with salt, they offer our most promising source of information in solving agricultural problems worldwide."
Gallagher, fellow CMS scientist Denise Seliskar, and their students have pioneered tissue-culture techniques that have enabled the scientists to "speed up" nature and allow them to more rapidly select desirable traits in marsh plants, such as high seedling vigor. They also have applied several genetic engineering procedures to improve certain marsh plant varieties for specific uses and geographic locations. For example, they have incorporated a gene into a grain-producing salt-marsh species that may increase the plant's cold tolerance so that it can be grown in cold climates such as northern China.
Today, the halophyte hay, grain, and vegetable crops developed by Gallagher and his colleagues are being tested in plots at CMS and far beyond -- in Germany, Egypt, and China -- thanks to the Halophyte Biotechnology Center established at CMS in 1990. Gallagher and Seliskar are co-directors of the international center, which has regional hubs in Egypt, India, Pakistan, the People's Republic of China, and Thailand.
A member of the CMS faculty since 1980, Gallagher earned his bachelors, master's, and doctoral degrees from the University of Delaware. After earning his Ph.D. from the University in 1971, he worked at the University of Georgia on Sapelo Island for seven years and then for the Environmental Protection Agency in Oregon for three years. "When I had the opportunity to return to Delaware to join the CMS faculty," Gallagher says, "I had a much broader understanding of halophytes and their potential for solving agricultural problems on a global scale. I'm intrigued by these plants, and I'm enthusiastic about the progress we're making in unlocking their secrets."
Gallagher's lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. in Room 104, Cannon Laboratory, at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus, 700 Pilottown Road, Lewes. The hour-long talk will be followed by light refreshments.
While the lecture is free and open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are required. To reserve your seat for Gallagher's presentation, please contact the college at (302) 645-4279. For more information about CMS, visit the College's Web site at www.ocean.udel.edu.