John Cobb, assistant minister for the environment and water resources, has told a forum in Canberra that the chemical could help control some of the country’s most economically-damaging weeds .

He said: “Further research has found that it can be sprayed on paddocks to break the dormancy of the seeds of some of our worst weeds.

“When the weeds germinate, farmers can use a general knockdown herbicide to eradicate them once and for all.”

The composition of the chemical remains a mystery but is understood to have originally evolved to boost native bush revegetation projects.

As well as being highly destructive, bushfires play an important ecological role helping to rejuvenate arid areas.

Many plants have evolved so that they require fires as a trigger to signal that it is time to start growing.

Mr Cobb told the BioFutures-BioSolutions forum last week the identification of the chemical was an example of how biotechnology is being used to help agriculture adapt to climate change.

“Most of the debate about climate change is focused on reducing our output of greenhouse gases and that is certainly a major problem that governments and all of us face” he said.

“But even if we slashed greenhouse gas emissions right now, climate change will still happen because of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and we have to learn to adapt to that change as well as reducing emissions.”

Scientists are also working with farmers to use native perennial grasses to develop pastures that support year-round grazing.

In a connected programme, a rare native grass “rediscovered” after 134 years is being investigated to see how its high salt tolerance developed.

This could then be used to boost the salt tolerance of cereal and other crop and pasture plants, Mr Cobb explained.

“Biotechnology will be one of the keys to that adaptation, to provide the world with food plants that use less water, continue growing through droughts, or grow in salt-affected soils,” he said.

“So there is opportunity, as well as problems, in climate change.”

David Gibbs

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