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Agricultural researchers in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria and are preparing field tests on some 80 varieties of rice designed to survive — and even thrive — in the iron-rich soils of West Africa.

Beginning in May, studies in three regions of each country will test the plants’ abilities to tolerate levels of iron that would kill most high-yielding rice, said Senegalese molecular biologist Khady Nani Dramé, from the African Rice Centre in Benin.

Local farmers are participating in the trials, which will be directed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana, Guinea's Agronomic Research Institute, the National Cereals Research Institute in Nigeria and the Environment and Agricultural Research Institutte in Burkina Faso

"Once each of the institutes has planted the varieties, the farmers from each site will be invited to select the five best varieties and the five worst," Dramé told SciDev.Net.

Ten high-performing varieties will then be sent to the farmers, who will use their own traditional tilling techniques to see if the iron-tolerant rice gives better results than the breeds they normally use.

Until now, only low-yielding rice has survived in such iron-rich soil.

"That's why we first need to find the varieties tolerant to iron toxicity and then create new ones by breeding these tolerant varieties with high-yielding varieties — so that we can get stress-tolerant rice with a good yield," explained Dramé.

Her team has already narrowed down the potential candidates in field tests on 300 different rice strains.

Plant breeder Alhassan Maji, from Nigeria's National Cereals Research Institute explained he would be investigating the level of iron in the test rice's leaves, the height of the rice plants and the amount of grain produced

The first results will be ready by December 2009, he said.

The research is part of the Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA) project, run in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The project also designs plants which can survive drought, salty water and cold.

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