On the cusp of another green revolution
Researchers are developing a super rice plant tolerant of weather swings, with high yield
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
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.