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[MANILA] The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has launched an ambitious collaborative effort to sequence the genomes of 10,000 rice varieties in two years, which could help breed new varieties that are stronger, faster-growing or higher-yielding than before.

The initiative follows the sequencing of the first rice variety, the Nipponbare cultivar, as early as 2004 by scientists from 10 countries, working in the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project. This took seven years and cost more than US$100 million. But since then only a few types of rice have been sequenced.

IRRI scientists see genome sequencing as key to developing new rice varieties adapted to challenges such as global warming and shrinking agricultural lands. Improved rice varieties are expected to help ease global hunger, as rice remains the most important crop plant, feeding more than half of the world's 7 billion people.

Genome sequencing provides scientists with information about the hereditary structure of rice and will enable them to manipulate rice genes to produce improved varieties. It will also be helpful in understanding how rice will fare against disease and how it can grow in various weather conditions or land types.

Initially 3,000 varieties will be covered by the project, said IRRI. Among its partners for this phase are the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI). Funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and China's Ministry of Science and Technology.

Bicheng Yang, director of branding and communication at BGI, said: "The ultimate goal is to sequence 10,000 rice strains selected from the rice gene bank collections at IRRI."

This collection holds 119,000 varieties.

The project "requires a multitude of scientific and financial support," according to Yang. "BGI performs whole genome sequencing and basic data treatment while scientists from CAAS, IRRI, BGI and possibly some other institutes will work together on further data analysis."

The results will be shared with the public to promote rice breeding efforts, added Yang, and no single organisation will have exclusive rights to the data.

This article was modified 22 December 2011.