On the cusp of an­other green revo­lu­tion

Re­searchers are de­vel­op­ing a su­per rice plant tol­er­ant of weather swings, with high yield

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE - David Fog­a­rty As­sis­tant For­eign Edi­tor In Can­berra

Crop sci­en­tist Robert Fur­bank opens a light-filled cabi­net to in­spect a rice plant, the tops heavy with grain. It looks like any other rice plant ex­cept that this one, in a lab in the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity in Can­berra, is a pro­to­type that could rev­o­lu­tionise rice farm­ing and greatly im­prove rice har­vests in the decades to come.

“The fu­ture of rice could be in th­ese cab­i­nets,” Pro­fes­sor Fur­bank said, point­ing to sev­eral growth cab­i­nets that can re­pro­duce the light, tem­per­a­ture and other con­di­tions that rice plants need to thrive.

The pro­to­type is the re­sult of nearly 10 years of re­search that is among the most am­bi­tious on the planet and in­volves a con­sor­tium of uni­ver­si­ties in eight coun­tries. It is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion and is led by Ox­ford Univer­sity.

The goal is to re-engi­neer the rice plant us­ing genes from maize, or corn. The aim is to raise rice yields by at least 50 per cent while us­ing far less wa­ter and fer­tiliser to grow. If the re­searchers suc­ceed, it will trig­ger an­other green revo­lu­tion. And it can’t come soon enough. Rice is the world’s most im­por­tant crop – it is the sta­ple for about half the world’s pop­u­la­tion. But yields have plateaued glob­ally, while de­mand for rice is ex­pected to grow as the world’s pop­u­la­tion in­creases.

In an oft-re­peated es­ti­mate, the UN says food pro­duc­tion needs to in­crease by 70 per cent by 2050. No one re­ally knows ex­actly how much more rice will need to be pro­duced. But what ex­perts do know is that rice farm­ing will only be­come more chal­leng­ing be­cause of greater weather ex­tremes caused by cli­mate change and lim­its to ex­pand­ing crop acreage be­cause of com­pet­ing de­mand for land from cities, in­dus­tries and other crops.

Wild swings in the global out­put of rice, and other ce­re­als such as wheat, can trig­ger huge spikes in prices, mass un­rest and star­va­tion. So sci­en­tists are ur­gently try­ing to de­velop crop va­ri­eties that yield big­ger har­vests and can tol­er­ate wilder swings in the weather. Plants of the fu­ture will have to cope with ex­treme heat, drought and floods.

“We need sta­bil­ity,” said Prof Fur­bank. “We can’t be in that sit­u­a­tion where the sup­ply of our ma­jor ce­real crops is os­cil­lat­ing in re­sponse to cli­mate change. We need to have that sta­bil­ity that will en­sure our fu­ture food sup­ply.”

It’s the ur­gent need for sta­bil­ity that un­der­pins the pro­gramme called the C4 Rice Project. The In­ter­na­tional Rice Re­search In­sti­tute near Manila is a ma­jor part­ner and will be key to get­ting su­per rice out to farm­ers in the fu­ture.

At its sim­plest, the con­sor­tium aims to make rice plants much more ef­fi­cient in the way they har­ness sun­light, car­bon diox­ide (CO2) and wa­ter – the ba­sic in­gre­di­ents for pho­to­syn­the­sis.

Plants have evolved dif­fer­ent types of pho­to­syn­the­sis, some more ef­fi­cient than oth­ers.

Rice and wheat be­long to the less­ef­fi­cient C3 type and have pretty much reached the max­i­mum amount of grain they can pro­duce, de­spite many thou­sands of dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties de­vel­oped.

Maize and sugar cane be­long to the C4 pho­to­syn­the­sis group and, like a high-tech assem­bly line, their leaves use sun­light, CO2 and wa­ter much faster and much more ef­fec­tively to pro­duce the sug­ars and other com­plex com­pounds that plants need to grow.

In­side the C4 plant leaf is a sys­tem that ef­fec­tively turbo-charges CO2 cap­ture and pro­cess­ing.

The con­sor­tium wants to in­sert this same process into rice. But to do so means re-en­gi­neer­ing the in­sides of the rice leaf – in ef­fect turn­ing rice into a C4 plant.

Noth­ing on this scale has been done be­fore. It’s an in­cred­i­bly am­bi­tious project and in­volves repli­cat­ing the bio­chem­istry and in­ter­nals of a C4 plant leaf. Can it be done?

The C4 Rice Project team are al­ready about half­way there.

The rice plants in the ANU, in the Re­search School of Bi­ol­ogy build­ing, al­ready have the genes in­serted for the bio­chem­istry part.

“Th­ese aren’t yield­ing any bet­ter

PHO­TOS: DAVID FOG­A­RTY, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Right: Pro­fes­sor Robert Fur­bank in­spects pro­to­type rice plants at the Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence for Trans­la­tional Pho­to­syn­the­sis.Far right: Rice fields in Viet­nam’s north­ern agri­cul­tural province of Yen Bai. Wild swings in the global out­put of rice and other ce­re­als can trig­ger huge spikes in prices, mass un­rest and star­va­tion.

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