In collaboration with researchers at Nanjing Agricultural University, Dr Tony Miller from the John Innes Centre has developed rice crops with an improved ability to manage their own pH levels, enabling them to take up significantly more nitrogen, iron and phosphorous from soil and increase yield by up to 54 percent.
Rice is a major crop, feeding almost 50 percent of the world’s population and has retained the ability to survive in changing environmental conditions. The crop is able to thrive in flooded paddy fields – where the soggy, anaerobic conditions favour the availability of ammonium – as well as in much drier, drained soil, where increased oxygen means more nitrate is available. Nitrogen fertilizer is a major cost in growing many cereal crops and its overuse has a negative environmental impact.
The nitrogen that all plants need to grow is typically available in the form of nitrate or ammonium ions in the soil, which are taken up by the plant roots. For the plant, getting the right balance of nitrate and ammonium is very important: too much ammonium and plant cells become alkaline; too much nitrate and they become acidic. Either way, upsetting the pH balance means the plant’s enzymes do not work as well, affecting plant health and crop yield.
An international team of researchers led by the University of Arizona has sequenced the complete genome of African rice.
The genetic information will enhance scientists’ and agriculturalists’ understanding of the growing patterns of African rice, as well as enable the development of new rice varieties that are better able to cope with increasing environmental stressors to help solve global hunger challenges.
“Rice feeds half the world, making it the most important food crop,” Wing said. “Rice will play a key role in helping to solve what we call the 9 billion-people question.”
The 9 billion-people question refers to predictions that the world’s population will increase to more than 9 billion people – many of whom will live in areas where access to food is extremely scarce – by the year 2050. The question lies in how to grow enough food to feed the world’s population and prevent the host of health, economic and social problems associated with hunger and malnutrition.
Now, with the completely sequenced African rice genome, scientists and agriculturalists can search for ways to cross Asian and African species to develop new varieties of rice with the high-yield traits of Asian rice and the hardiness of African rice.