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[BANGKOK] Thai researchers are developing a breed of aromatic jasmine rice that is resistant to some pests and diseases, as well as to flash floods, drought and salinity.

The ongoing research, which uses laboratory techniques to back up traditional breeding methods, was presented at the international BioAsia 2007 conference in Bangkok this month (7–9 November).

Thailand is the world largest rice exporter, with jasmine rice the most popular. But the country's rice plants often have to struggle against severe flooding or drought, as well as damage by the brown plant hopper (BPH) and bacterial leaf blight (BLB). 

The experimental rice withstands nearly three weeks of flooding and is resistant to BPH and BLB, says Apichart Vanavichit, director of the Rice Gene Discovery Unit in Thailand, who is leading the research. His team are now looking for genes that enable other rice plants to tolerate salt conditions and drought. 

Vanavichit said they hope to release their "super rice" with the whole set of resistance genes by 2012.

The scientists use genetic marker techniques to locate the desired genes in different rice varieties, which helps them identify the best parent plants for breeding.

Work began in 1998 with the identification of flood-resistant genes in a local Indian rice variety.

In 2001 the researchers conducted a field trial, and last year gave the flood-resistant rice seeds to farmers in northern Thailand. 

Meanwhile, researchers crossbred plants with BPH- and BLB-resistant genes from a wild Sri Lankan rice and samples from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), before combining those traits with the flood-resistant jasmine rice.

"What would happen if India hadn't allowed us to use its rice variety? The sharing of genetic resources is definitely beneficial," said Vanavichit.

Surawit Wannakrairoj, a member of the Thai National Plant Variety Committee, told SciDev.Net that the results showed that Thailand does not need to embrace genetic-modification biotechnology. 

Duncan Macintosh, a spokesperson for IRRI, says the development of flood-resistant rice is progressing well in several countries, so the chances of success in Thailand are high. "But the main challenge will be to maintain the quality of jasmine rice," he told SciDev.Net.

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