Salt tolerance evolves more frequently in C4 grass lineages

Authors

  • L. Bromham,

    Corresponding author
    1. Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics, Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia
    • Correspondence: L. Bromham, Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics, Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia. Tel.: +61 2 61259545; fax: 61 2 61255573; e-mail: Lindell.Bromham@anu.edu.au

    Search for more papers by this author
  • T. H. Bennett

    1. Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics, Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia
    Search for more papers by this author

Abstract

Salt tolerance has evolved many times in the grass family, and yet few cereal crops are salt tolerant. Why has it been so difficult to develop crops tolerant of saline soils when salt tolerance has evolved so frequently in nature? One possible explanation is that some grass lineages have traits that predispose them to developing salt tolerance and that without these background traits, salt tolerance is harder to achieve. One candidate background trait is photosynthetic pathway, which has also been remarkably labile in grasses. At least 22 independent origins of the C4 photosynthetic pathway have been suggested to occur within the grass family. It is possible that the evolution of C4 photosynthesis aids exploitation of saline environments, because it reduces transpiration, increases water-use efficiency and limits the uptake of toxic ions. But the observed link between the evolution of C4 photosynthesis and salt tolerance could simply be due to biases in phylogenetic distribution of halophytes or C4 species. Here, we use a phylogenetic analysis to investigate the association between photosynthetic pathway and salt tolerance in the grass family Poaceae. We find that salt tolerance is significantly more likely to occur in lineages with C4 photosynthesis than in C3 lineages. We discuss the possible links between C4 photosynthesis and salt tolerance and consider the limitations of inferring the direction of causality of this relationship.

Ancillary