Plan to boost rice photosynthesis with inserted genes

Rice farming in Madagascar Copyright: IRD / Favier

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Scientists have announced plans to radically boost rice yields, warning that unless production increases millions of people could fall back into poverty.

Delegates who met at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines this month (17-21 July) said they hope to manipulate the crop’s genetics to enable it to grow faster and bigger.

Traditional methods of increasing rice production — such as crossing different varieties — have been pushed to the limits of what is scientifically possible. But now that researchers have sequenced rice’s entire genetic code, more advanced approaches could become available.

Key to the strategy discussed at the workshop is a difference in the way that rice and other plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugar for growth — a process called photosynthesis.

Rice photosynthesis is less efficient than that of some other plants such as maize that use an extra chemical process for capturing carbon dioxide.

The researchers say it should be possible to transfer this process to rice by inserting genes from maize or from wild relatives of rice that also use it.

The project is ambitious. The specialists who met this month say it would take about four years to determine whether the technique is feasible and another 10-15 years until the first improved varieties are available.