Interview with Associate Professor Akihiro Ueda
 
Agricultural crops around the world are experiencing an increasing amount of salt damage.When Japan was struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake, an extensive amount of soil was damaged by seawater due to tsunamis. As a matter of fact, humanity has a long history of combating soil salinization.It is about time to put an end to this battle.
 
Seeking to develop technology to enable crop production even under adverse environmental conditions
 
  Associate Professor Akihiro Ueda specializes in plant nutritional physiology. He strives to clarify the mechanism for environmental adaptation of plants, and develop plant varieties with a high tolerance to environmental stresses. The centerpiece of his research is the development of technology that enables crop production even under adverse environmental conditions.

Prof. Ueda said, “Adverse environmental conditions include drought, high salinity, and low and high temperatures. Among other things, we address the problem of high salinity with the greatest amount of enthusiasm.” Soil salinization occurs when excess salt accumulates in the soil, making it very difficult for crops and other species to survive in the soil. He pointed out that salinized soil is becoming more widespread around the world.

“According to a report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), approximately 20% of agricultural land around the world has suffered a productivity decline due to high salinity. This figure is equivalent to about 12 times the total land area of Japan. The objective of our research is to find a solution to this problem, which is becoming more serious worldwide,” he explained.
 
Prof. Ueda first became interested in this problem when he read a book on ancient civilizations as an undergraduate. He said, “The book stated that the reason for the decline of the Mesopotamian civilization was that the Mesopotamians became unable to produce sufficient food because of salt damage to agricultural land. This description impacted on me strongly, and inspired me to address environmental issues and challenges.”

He continued, “In this present age, we also frequently witness the occurrence of this high salinity problem. In other words, humanity has failed to overcome high salinity problem for thousands of years since the times of ancient civilization. I was motivated to conduct my research when I realized this problem, which has been a pending issue ever since ancient times.

Replacement of soil is one possible way to resolve the problem of high salinity. However, this method is hardly feasible for developing countries without sufficient funds, in part because the damaged area is so extensive. Consequently, Prof. Ueda aims to develop plants with a high salt tolerance.
 
 
Adopting three types of research approaches using rice, taking advantage of collaboration with overseas partners
 
  His laboratory is attempting to create plants that are highly tolerant to high salinity, mainly using rice. Its research approaches are roughly classified into three types.

The first approach is to find a salt-tolerant variety from among native varieties, and use it for crossbreeding. His laboratory asks overseas research institutes to send a group of indigenous varieties that are grown in soil that originally contained a high salt concentration, and investigates these plants. If a salt-tolerant variety can be discovered, his research team grows the variety. Joint research with Southeast Asian partner institutions has enabled his laboratory to speed up the process of breeding, which conventionally takes a lot of time. This is because rice can be harvested only once or twice a year in Japan, whereas it can be harvested three times a year in Southeast Asian countries.

Prof. Ueda explained that “This is a classic approach. Its main advantage is that the rice varieties developed through this method can be accepted by consumers the most smoothly, since they feel less resistance to rice produced in this way.”
 
The second approach is genetic engineering. In this approach, existing naturally salt-tolerant plants—such as graminaceous varieties growing wild in a coastal area or other high-salinity environments, and wild tomato varieties growing on the Galapagos Islands—are examined to unlock the key to their salt tolerance, i.e., to identify the genes encoding such a property. These genes are isolated and introduced to other rice and tomato varieties.

He said “In Japan, the actual situation is that the results of this research are still difficult to be accepted by consumers. Nevertheless, I think that it should be pursued as a basic research theme.”

The third approach uses bacteria living in the surrounding environment. For example, there are many bacteria around the roots of rice plants. Some of them function to facilitate the growth of rice and improve its salt tolerance. If the number of these bacteria can be increased, the rice plant will obtain more benefits. His laboratory therefore advances studies to enable only these probiotic bacteria to settle around the roots.

“By combining the different types of approaches mentioned so far, I expect that a synergy will be produced, which will give plants an unprecedentedly high salt tolerance. This is the objective of my research.”

With a smile on his face, he looked at the future prospects for his research, saying, “In about five to ten years time, we should have produced better varieties of plants. Around that time, I hope that we will be able to undertake experiments involving cultivation of these varieties on soil damaged by salt.”
 
 
While drawing enthusiastic attention to his unique research material, taking on difficult challenges from a broader perspective
 

  His laboratory has 500 - 600 rice varieties collected from around the world, including some that have not yet been used for any research thus far. Prof. Ueda stated that “Our rice collection includes very unique varieties, from among which we have newly found ones that are considered to be highly tolerate to high salinity. Moreover, while many researchers around the world conduct research using Indica rice varieties, my research has also focused on Japonica rice varieties. In addition to Indica varieties, we have collected Japonica rice varieties from across Japan and other Asian countries, and sorted them. In the course of our Japonica research, we have discovered some salt-tolerant varieties which had conventionally been found only in Indica varieties.” In other words, his team has been pursuing research that can be done only at his laboratory, which has now received a number of requests from various other research institutes to share these Japonica varieties. “However, we have asked them to wait until the time is right, since we have just made the discovery,” said Prof. Ueda with a grin in his face. It is natural that a new innovative discovery should attract enthusiastic attention from other researchers.

Asked about the appeal of this research to him, he provided a clear answer, saying, “To contribute to sustainable food production, which is now unstable in the context of global population growth, by using plant technologies.” In the not-so-distant future, the technologies developed by Prof. Ueda may save humankind from a serious food crisis.
At the end of the interview, he gave a message to students: “In pursing research activities, you may face intensive competition, and often experience failure. In such a case, I recommend changing your perspective or approach. Initially, I myself had studied plant physiology single-mindedly. However, when I realized that I could not achieve what I wanted to do by pursing that discipline alone, I started to study genetic engineering technology and learn how to use it. Further, when I became aware that just improving plant function was not entirely satisfactory, I started to research microorganisms (bacteria). As my experience suggests, by gaining knowledge and experience in various disciplines, you become better able to approach your goal, which you had previously tried to achieve from a single perspective, from different perspectives. I believe that it is important to adopt such an attitude.”

He mentioned that each year, students from Southeast Asian and African countries join his laboratory, and that after earning their doctoral degrees, these students bring back the advanced technologies they have learned to their home countries.
 
Akihiro Ueda
Associate Professor
Plant Nutritional Physiology Laboratory

April 2002 – March 2003 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences, Nagoya University
(May 2002 – December 2002) Visiting Research Fellow, International Rice Research Institute
April 2003 – March 2006 Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences, Nagoya University
(March 2004 – July 2005) Visiting Research Fellow, Department of Horticultural Science, Texas A&M University
July 2006 – June 2007 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Chemical Engineering, Texas A&M University
July 2007 – June 2009 Postdoctoral Research Fellow for Research Abroad of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Department of Chemical Engineering, Texas A&M University
July 2009 – February 2010 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Chemical Engineering, Texas A&M University
March 2010 – February 2015 Lecturer, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University
(October 2012 – December 2012) Visiting Research Fellow, International Rice Research Institute
March 2015 – present Associate Professor, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University

Posted on Aug 27, 2015