Xiangdong Fu, a geneticist at the Institute of Genetics and Development Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China, and colleagues first discovered the gene — known as GW8 — while studying basmati rice in Pakistan.
Basmati rice is well known for its good grain quality. The researchers found that this feature is influenced by the presence of a gene known as GW8, which can also improve the appearance and flavour of rice.
Fu and his colleagues hypothesised that high-quality Chinese rice varieties might also have the GW8 gene.
Following a series of field studies in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hainan in 2009, the researchers found that a variant of the GW8 gene does exist in certain varieties of high-yielding rice in China.
However, the variant is different to that which was identified in Pakistan, and is related to grain weight and density, both of which boost crop productivity.
The scientists also found a third variant of the gene Amol3, an Iranian rice cultivar (a plant selected for desirable characteristics that can be maintained by propagation), that improves grain quality and productivity.
If this new variant were introduced into basmati rice, grain yields would increase by around 14 per cent, the scientists have predicted. If introduced into the high-quality Chinese varieties, their quality and yields could also be further improved.
Fu said that he hoped the new GW8 variant could eventually be introduced into local varieties in countries across the world.
However, developing these improved varieties would take at least three years, he said.
World Food Prize laureate Gurdev S. Khush, a former head of plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, said the discovery of the GW8 gene in rice was very important.
It has been very difficult to improve the yield potential of basmati rice, Khush told SciDev.Net.
The authors' findings were published in Nature Genetics last month (24 June).
Nature Genetics doi:10.1038/ng.2327 (2012)