Phd in the Spotlight: Magdalena Julkowska
Magdalena Julkowska (1986) will be awarded her doctorate degree at the University of Amsterdam on 30 April. During her doctoral research at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences (SILS) she learned more about how plants react to salt. This knowledge brings the cultivation of agricultural crops in saline regions a step closer.
What did you do?
‘I examined how plants react to large quantities of salt in the soil. The soil always contains salts such as potassium and sodium chloride. Though plants need these salts in small quantities, in excess they are poisonous, leading to, among other things, slower growth since salt obstructs photosynthesis and therefore energy production. Some plants can withstand salt better than others. I wanted to know what caused these differences. If we understand what makes plants salt tolerant, we could eventually create strains of agricultural crops such as barley and wheat that can grow in saline areas where currently no food can be cultivated.’
How did you research this?
‘At 40 different sites in the Netherlands, I collected Arabidopsis plants and determined the salt concentrations in the soils. I then grew the seeds of the plants in the laboratory and measured their salt tolerance. My measurements showed that plants that grow in salt-rich areas are more salt tolerant. I also studied a large population of Arabidopsis plants from across the world collected by other scientists. With this population I looked specifically at plant root development in conditions of salt stress. I found strong indications that Arabidopsis plants with many short lateral roots are more tolerant of salt stress. We suspect that the molecular processes that cause slower lateral root growth are involved in salt tolerance in the later stages of salt stress.’
What impact will this research have?
‘Knowing which gene makes a plant salt tolerant will allow us to introduce that gene into existing farm crops, thereby creating salt-tolerant varieties able to grow in saline areas. This means you could grow barley, wheat or tomatoes, for example, using partially desalinated seawater. In the Netherlands, salt stress is not much of a problem as there is ample fresh water available. But the Dutch situation is exceptional. In many places in the world, the soil is too saline for cultivating popular crops because, for example, the areas in question were once covered by seas, as is the case in large parts of Australia. This is why we want to conduct follow-up research to find the genes responsible for salt tolerance.’
You are currently in Saudi Arabia. What are you doing there?
‘I recently started working as a postdoc at King Abdullah University, where I am again studying the salt tolerance of Arabidopsis. I may soon move to rice. My current professor, Mark Tester, gave a presentation at the UvA when I had just begun my PhD. He told me that he was planning on setting up his own lab in Saudi Arabia and asked me to come work with him after completing my PhD. I had serious doubts. I wondered if I could lead a normal life in Saudi Arabia. But I visited last May and saw the beautiful campus and excellent facilities, even though the university was only established five years ago. I am really enjoying it now. The people are very friendly and passionate about their work. I am very pleased that I can now be part of it.’
Text: Carin Röst