Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute have successfully isolated the gene in wild Indian rice allowing it to thrive in phosphorus-poor soil, the BBC reports. The road to discovery began with the recognition of the poor soil conditions this rice was found in, and a realization that some kind of evolved adaptation allowed it to thrive where other types of rice could not.
The Darwinian solution turned out to be very simple. This type of rice grows larger roots than its non-Indian counterparts, making it more effective at drawing up the necessary nutrients when they are not so abundant. As a side effect, other nutrients are also able to easily take up nitrogen and potassium. These three nutrients have a huge effect on plant growth and are the main component in both natural (manure) and artificial (fossil fuel-derived) fertilizers.
Which is why these scientists worked hard to isolate the gene and transfer it into other rice strains directly, and through traditional cross-breeding (guided by the use of gene markers). The results? A 60% boost in yield for commercial varieties grown in this type of soil, once they had this gene.
The relationship between root growth and nutrient uptake implies that the gene might equip rice plants to deal with other kinds of nutrient scarcity, like low potassium or nitrogen, as well. This hasn’t been followed up on as of yet, however. Actually, low phosphorus is common in large parts of Asia, making this research of immediate benefit, regardless of the mitigating effect it may have on other types of nutrient scarcity.
While GMO is a bad word to many in the environmental movement, I’ve always refused to advocate for a blanket ban of the technology, and this is pretty much exactly why. I have no love for Monsanto, and believe we need to be vigilant against a nightmarish future of terminator seeds and a corporate-controlled food supply, as that described in Paolo Bacigalupi’s fiction. And there’s been a tremendous amount of short-sightedness in crop development in the past, leading to such messes as equipment-destroying corn. But the work done at the International Rice Research Institute is of exactly the kind I’ve been arguing as not only desirable, but necessary.
Funded by the Generation Challenge Program, this research is aimed at an overarching goal of preparing for a climate-compromised future, by eventually creating crops that can stand up to everything from drought to extreme heat to salinity to low nutrient availability. The research results are completely open to everyone, with absolutely no intellectual property claims on either the techniques or resulting strains. Which is as it should be in science.
Partners in Generation Challenge include academic institutions and individuals in over 50 countries. I hope they succeed.
Photo credit: Oliver Spalt
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