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'Fuel-injected' rice closing in on reality

By RJ Whitehead , 08-Nov-2012
Last updated on 09-Nov-2012 at 04:31 GMT

A project to develop a cutting-edge variety rice has received a significant funding boost, and is now about to roll into its second phase.

Led by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the project aims to create “C4 rice”, which is rice with an inbuilt fuel injector to better convert sunlight into grain. If successful, the rice would potentially result in up to 50% higher production while using less water and nutrients.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the British government and IRRI will together invest $14 million in C4 rice over the next three years.

This is exactly the sort of scientific research that the Prime Minister was calling for at the Hunger Summit at Downing Street earlier this year,” said the British parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development, Lynne Featherstone. 

Research progressing

Rice is the staple food for millions across the developing world, so finding a way to double the amount each plant produces would help to feed many more of the very poorest. This new funding will enable the International Rice Research Institute to begin producing prototypes of this ‘super rice’ for testing. This could prove a critical breakthrough in feeding an ever-growing number of hungry mouths.”

C4 rice research, currently in its early phases, hopes to develop a new type of rice with improved photosynthesis capacity, known as C4. There are classes of plants known as “C3” and “C4”, referring to how they convert light energy into sugar or photosynthesise. Rice has a C3 photosynthetic pathway, meaning that photosynthesis is inefficient at converting input to grain. However, the C4 pathway processes resources more efficiently and converts them into higher grain production.

Other plants, such as maize, already have C4 photosynthesis,” says IRRI’s Dr Paul Quick, coordinator of the C4 rice project, which brings together 17 research institutes worldwide.

Mouths to feed

We want to incorporate this natural energy booster into rice so that it can achieve much higher yields,” he added. “It’s important to incorporate C4 in rice because rice grows in places where other crops, such as maize, do not grow. It’s also important because rice is the staple food of more than half the world, and for many people who live in poverty.”

The researchers have already identified crucial genes needed to assemble C4 photosynthesis in rice, defined the basic elements required for functional C4 photosynthesis, and successfully introduced 10 out of the 13 genes needed for C4 rice.

In this second phase of the project, the team aims to produce C4 rice prototypes for testing. 

We’re thrilled to be working with the world’s elite in photosynthesis research to uncover genetic secrets and understand biochemical processes to bring rice to a new yield frontier,” remarked Quick.

The C4 rice project was first funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and IRRI in 2009. The British government has joined the second phase of the project and provided additional funding. Other donors include the European Union’s “3 to 4 Project” and the CGIAR Canada Linkage Fund.

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