The unique history of Australia’s wild rice means it could play a key role in tackling global food security as part of future breeding programmes, according to a leading plant geneticist at the University of Queensland.
In research led by Professor Robert Henry from the university’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, and published on Plos One , scientists have identified gaps they call “genome deserts” in the DNA of Australian wild rice growing in swampland in Cape York in the north of Queensland.
Henry said if the supply of rice, one of the world’s most important food crops, were compromised, the ancient DNA found in Australian wild rice in particular would be crucial to the crop’s defence.
“Australian wild rice could play a major role in future worldwide breeding programmes that would improve disease and pest tolerance, reduce fertiliser needs, grow healthier crops and enhance food security,” he said.
The genome deserts, he added, were evidence of one or more major selection events that occurred naturally in prehistoric times, well before domestication.
“Rice has been domesticated for several thousand years. Australian wild rice, which also has important similarities with domesticated rice, has been isolated from the impacts of domestication in Asia, so its genes still carry huge variation in many parts of the genome.
“Natural selection in the wild was not due to humans. Australian wild rice has enormous diversity but we can still see evidence of a major selection event happening, pre-domestication, probably millions of years ago.
“The Australian wild populations represent an invaluable source of diversity supporting rice food security.”
Most Asian wild rice populations have been displaced by cultivated rice since domestication started in China about 7,000 years ago. Australian wild rice has enormous diversity but it is still possible to see evidence of a major selection event happening before domestication, probably millions of years ago.
This research was funded by the Australian Research Council, the Department of Science and Technology, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and the Government of India under the Boycast Fellowship.