In a breakthrough that could boost food production in many parts of the world, scientists said on Monday they had inserted a single gene from a relative of the cabbage into a tomato plant to create the first crop able to grow in salty water and soil, Reuters reports. Researchers introduced into a tomato plant a gene from the plant Arabidopsis that controls a protein able to corral excess salt before it inflicts damage on a plant. The genetically engineered tomato imprisons the salt in compartments within its cells, and also removes salt from the soil, the scientists said in the journal Nature Biotechnology. The leaves of the genetically engineered tomato plants contained very high concentrations of sodium, but the fruit produced by the plants was not tainted by salt. "My personal impression is that it tastes great," plant biologist Eduardo Blumwald, of the University of California at Davis, said in an interview. Blumwald conducted the work along with Hong-Xia Zhang of the University of Toronto. Blumwald said commercially useful salt-tolerant tomato plants could be available within three years. The researchers said the tomatoes offer hope that other crops also can be genetically modified for use in parts of the world that have salty irrigation water and salt-damaged soils. The creation of the first salt-tolerant crop addresses one of agriculture's key problems. Irrigated land represents only 15 per cent of global cropland but generates 40 per cent of the crops. But salt is toxic to crops, and water used for irrigation leaves behind salt that eventually ruins the soil. Crop production is limited by salinity on up to 40 per cent of the world's irrigated land according to estimates. "It is a problem that does seem to be getting worse," said Stanley Wood, a scientist with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, which studies global agricultural issues. "Anything that increases the productivity of those lands obviously would be a major breakthrough." Scientists have failed to develop salt-tolerant crop varieties using selective breeding techniques. Blumwald and Zhang genetically engineered tomato plants that produce higher levels of a naturally occurring protein that transports salt - in the form of sodium ions- into compartments within the cells. That renders the salt unable to interfere with the plant's normal biochemical activity. The gene that controls increased production of that protein was taken from Arabidopsis, a relative of the cabbage that is often used in plant research, and inserted into the tomato. The plants were grown in greenhouses at the University of Toronto. The researchers said the new tomato plants grew and produced fruit in irrigation water about 50 times saltier than normal. The tomato thrived in water about a third as salty as seawater, but Zhang said it cannot grow in seawater. The researchers said they worked with the tomato plant in part because it was easy to manipulate genetically. They added that they are now working with canola.