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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 19:18 GMT 20:18 UK
Rice data to boost food security
Rice, Science
Farming rice on the terraces of Yunnan Province, China
test hello test
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff
line
The draft sequences of the rice genome published this week will have a dramatic impact on global food production.

For certain, the data will provide a window on the inner workings of the world's most important food crop but their significance goes much deeper.

Rice, Syngenta
The quick wins will come in conventional breeding of all cereals
"This is a hugely important landmark," the British plant geneticist Professor Michael Bevan told BBC News Online.

"Rice not only feeds the Asian population, it also represents the grasses from which all of our primary sources of food come - wheat, maize (corn), barley, sorghum, etc."

Rice will now become a model plant. Rice shows extensive "synteny" with these other cereals; the gene order and the gene positions on comparable chromosomes are very similar.

Global pressures

This should make it much easier to search for genes of interest in all the grasses.

Rice, BBC
"There are about 1,000 traits that are mapped by breeders already to specific chromosomes," said Dr Stephen Goff, of Syngenta's Torrey Mesa Research Institute, which produced the japonica sequence of rice.

"Now, we have the genes associated with those traits. We can speed up breeding in rice and all the other grasses."

Dr Don MacDonald, a rice geneticist from Cambridge University, UK, said: "In all the major cereals, we want to track down traits governing resistance to bacterial and fungal pathogens, to insect pests; traits that govern yield, flowering time - almost everything that you can think of that is important for an agricultural crop."

More productive agriculture is desperately needed. Every day, 24,000 people die of starvation and 800 million go to bed with empty stomachs. And the pressures are growing.

The world's population could top 8.4 billion (up from six billion now) by the end of the century. Climate change, soil erosion and desertification only make things more difficult.

Food enhancement

But this does not necessarily mean a headlong rush into genetically modified crops. For sure, these will play a part, but the quick wins are more likely to come in conventional breeding.

Because scientists will have a better idea of what they are looking for, they will be able to go back to some of the wild varieties and, using modern genetic marking techniques, produce new, more productive crosses.

Golden rice BBC
Golden Rice is engineered to produce beta-carotene, a precursor our bodies need to make vitamin A
Much has been made of "Golden Rice", a GM plant that contains beta-carotene, a precursor for vitamin A. It is estimated that 124 million children worldwide lack vitamin A, putting them at risk of permanent blindness and other serious ailments.

Swiss scientists got their rice to produce beta-carotene by including genes from the daffodil. But the beta-carotene pathway is already in rice - researchers just need to find out how to make it work.

"All the genes are present in rice," said Dr Goff. "One could make a non-GM vitamin-A rice simply by studying those genes in a more focussed way."

See also:

26 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Rice genome falls to science
13 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Little weed in science landmark
14 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Yellow rice gives dietary boost
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