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Unlocking ancient rice secrets to overcome rainfall extremes

March 1, 2013

Researchers from the United Kingdom, United States and India, led by scientists at the University of York, are embarking on a major four-year project to develop new strains of  rice that will be more resistant to extremes of climate to provide subsistence communities in India and elsewhere with more stable grain yields. The team is made up of scientists from the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) and the York Environmental Sustainability Institute (YESI) in the UK, Cornell University in the USA and the Central Rice Research Institute in India.They will be working not so much to  to increase overall yields but to stabilise them under environmentally challenging conditions such as drought or floods

The researchers propose to gather valuable genetic information from ancestral wild species of rice to identify beneficial segments of the genome that help the plants survive droughts and floods. These segments from ancestral rice genomes will then be bred into commercial rice varieties, transfering the beneficial traits into those varieties. In parallel, researchers in India will conduct field trials using hundreds of lines of a commercial elite variety of rice carrying different segments of chromosome DNA from wild ancestors to evaluate how these different lines grow under challenging conditions in the field. Using this field information, scientists in York and at Cornell will build up a detailed genetic picture of what causes increased resistance to drought and floods in specific lines of rice.

The Director of CNAP, Professor Ian Graham, says: “This project builds on a discovery by Professor Susan McCouch at Cornell University that some wild ancestral species carry very beneficial genes even though they aren’t very good at producing grain. She has developed populations that have got segments of the wild ancestral species' genome introduced into commercial varieties and these can now be used to discover drought tolerant lines. It’s using modern molecular methods to produce more robust crops that are not going to fail one year and perform well the next, but perform more predictably under those environmentally challenging conditions."  A video of an interview with Professor Graham on the project is available on YouTube.

The work will also involve socio-economic studies to identify and address the socio-economic barriers to adoption of new drought resistant varieties as well as modelling the impact of new varieties on production of rice in the context of climate change.

Professor Sue Hartley, the Director of YESI, adds: “This project is particularly exciting because it combines the use of the latest molecular techniques for plant breeding with large-scale modelling of crop performance under different climatic conditions, and a socio-economic assessment of the uptake of new crop varieties and their impact on farmer livelihoods. This sort of collaborative inter-disciplinary approach is what we need to address key challenges such as improving global food security. By bringing together such diverse expertise we will ensure that the research project makes a significant contribution to improving the sustainability of food production for farmers in India and that the benefits of the research reach those who need them.”

At the end of the four-year project, the international team hope to produce improved drought and flood tolerant rice varieties that are accepted and adopted by local communities in rain-fed areas of India, as well as new breeding tools to enable rapid further development of new rice varieties. The project is funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme, a joint multi-national initiative of BBSRC and the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), together with  the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and India’s Ministry of Science and Technology Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

Rice is the staple food for more than two billion people, but a quarter of global rice production – rsing to 45% in India – is in rain-fed environments. With climate change predicted to cause more droughts and flooding in the future, the there is an urgent need to develop rice strains that are both drought and submersion tolerant to maintain and improve food security for this significant segment of trhe world's population.

Adapted from an article published in the University of York website News and Events section on 20th November 2012.

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