Scientists in search of a super rice strain

Scientists in the Philippines are working on a project they hope will produce a revolutionary high-yielding rice strain to guarantee future global supply.

LOS BANOS // Just outside the Philippine capital amid the lush rolling hills of Los Banos, some of the world's leading scientists are working on a project that they hope will produce a revolutionary high-yielding rice strain that will ensure future global supply for the good that is a daily staple for almost half the world's population.

"It is a bold challenge employing some of the finest scientific minds around the world," said the director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Dr Robert Zeigler. "This is like the Apollo [space] project - long range, high risk, but with an extremely high pay-off," he said. With so many people dependent on rice, especially in Asia where 60 per cent of the world's population lives, the research is seen as vital for ensuring the continued supply of the cereal and to prevent mass starvation as the world's population increases and climate change impacts on traditional growing areas.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Dr Zeigler said. "Around 75 per cent of the world's population lives in the developing world where most of the one billion poor survive." Apart from population growth, climate change, Dr Zeigler said, will have a profound impact on rice production. Some 65 per cent of the world's rice comes from the great deltas of Asia such as the Mekong and Bangladesh. "A one-metre rise in sea level would be catastrophic," Dr Zeigler said.

Throughout Asia, especially in China, thousands of hectares of good agricultural land is being taken out of production annually for urban and industrial development placing pressure on the land that is left, he said. In Asia, for example, each hectare of land used for rice production currently provides food for 27 people - by 2050 that land will need to support at least 43 people, he said. According to Dr Zeigler, the achievements of the Green Revolution some 40 years ago which showed farmers how to improve their rice production and improve yields has reached its limitations. "We simply can't do any more with the varieties we now have," he said.

Known as the C4 Rice Project, the research is being carried out at the IRRI headquarters in Los Banos with the help of an initial US$11 million (Dh40m) grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The scientists, aided by dozens of colleagues from around the world, hope to eventually produce a rice variety that will need less water and fertiliser but yield 50 per cent more grain than the best current varieties.

The science is complex and involves changing the biophysical structure of the rice plant, making it a much more efficient user of energy from the sun. Plants use solar radiation to grow - to develop leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds - in a process known as photosynthesis. Rice has what is known as a C3 photosynthetic pathway which is less efficient than that of maize, sugar cane or sorghum, which have a C4 pathway.

The goal is to genetically modify rice into a C4 photosynthesis plant, such as maize, so it can absorb sunlight faster, use less water and require less fertiliser. "The challenge is trying to find the gene that controls the rice plant's photosynthetic engine so it can be tweaked," said the newly appointed project leader, William Quick, a professor of plant physiology and photosynthesis specialist from Britain's University of Sheffield.

"Some of the best brains in the world are working on this right now," he said. "There are 24,000 genes in a rice plant but we only know the function of less than 10 per cent. " The research will take time, Prof Quick said, "perhaps 10 to 15 years, but we will get there. This is a global project and IRRI is the mother ship. We have scientists in the US, China, Europe, Asia, and Australia working with us on this".

"I think it was Gates who said the project was high risk but the potential for mankind will be enormous." Dr Zeigler added: "And that is the challenge that faces us today - trying to find the gene that works. "It's not unusual in the plant kingdom for a plant to move from C3 to C4. What we are trying to do is speed up evolution." foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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