Rod Wing director Arizona Genomics Institute Tucson Ariz spends many days per year with rice plantings throughout the world Photo Arizona Genomics Institute

Rod Wing, director, Arizona Genomics Institute, Tucson, Ariz., spends many days per year with rice plantings throughout the world. Photo: Arizona Genomics Institute.

Advancing rice varieties to feed burgeoning world

The Arizona Genomics Institute says plant breeders must develop the next generation of crops with less negative environmental impact and fewer input requirements. Rice breeders are trying to develop higher yielding and more sustainable crops called ‘Next Generation Super Crops’ or ‘Green Super Rice.’

It’s almost universally agreed that a perfect storm is developing and agriculture faces a gargantuan task - feeding the world’s population expected to approach the 10 billion mark by 2050.

And if that’s doable, the challenge is how to accomplish this while wrestling with variables including less land, water, farmer numbers, plus the impact of climate change.

The Arizona Genomics Institute (AGI) reports, “With increasing competition for land, water, and other resources, breeders must develop the next generation of crops that have less negative environmental impact and fewer input requirements.”

The Institute, based in Tucson adds, “Crops will be needed that grow with less water, fertilizer, pesticides, on poorer soils, and with less labor - and still produce high-yielding and highly-nutritious foods.”

Sounds like an impossible task, yet AGI Director Rod Wing is optimistic.

“Science will be there in time to meet this goal,” Wing says. “This is a problem we’re going to solve in our lifetime. It’s going to happen.”

He adds, “I’m an optimist and my motivation every day involves thinking about how to solve the dilemma and the impact our research will make on the agricultural world.”

Genomic sequencing

To date, the science developed by AGI researchers has been impressive, including building maps of genomes - the crucial foundation in genomic sequencing. This allows researchers to locate and identify genes to improve crops and increase yield to avert or at least minimize the looming global food crisis.   

The AGI’s primary focus is on cereal crops, including rice, which comprise 60 percent of the human diet.

“Rice which already feeds half the world will play a huge role in this since the current rice-dependent population will double by 2050,” Wing says.

“Rice breeders are trying to develop new varieties that are higher yielding and more sustainable. We call these crops ‘Next Generation Super Crops’ or ‘Green Super Rice.’”

The AGI leader says rice is a good model system for studying other cereals since it has the smallest genome and is similar to wheat and maize.

In 2004, AGI scientists announced they had sequenced the African rice genome, the beginning of a much larger undertaking.

Crossing rice species

Scientists and others are now working to cross African and Asian rice species to develop new crop varieties which have the hardiness of African rice. It’s more resistant to environmental stresses, including long-term drought, high soil salinity, and flooding. 

“The idea is to create hardier, higher-yielding super rice that will be vital for human survival,” says Wing, who holds an Endowed Chair of Genome Biology and Evolutionary Genomics at the International Rice Research Institute.

“The rice project is a global initiative to develop resources that can be used by the entire world.”

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There are critics who disapprove of messing with Mother Nature, yet Wing says the severity of the problem is such that all tools in the toolbox may come in handy.

“GMO’s are fine and useful, but they’re one gene at a time with so much variation existing in wild species. We can’t design new crops as rapidly that way as we can with natural variation (a combination of genomes).

GMOs have a place...but

Wing’s view is that GMOs have a place, but so much natural variation exists that work should focus on the latter as evolution has done over the centuries. The genes that didn’t work well are gone. He wants to capture gene combinations in natural variation collections which work well and tweak those to work even better.

The bottom line is Wing and fellow futurists are looking to identify new traits.

“We want to identify variations in yield, quality, and disease resistance. Once we identify it we can cross into high-yielding varieties.”

Speaking at a Center for Controlled Environment Agriculture seminar in Tucson, Wing said, “Rice has half a million accessions and every one is a little different. We want to identify the differences and combine them to make big differences.”

China and India produce about half the world’s rice. The U.S. is the world’s 12th largest producer with rice grown in the Mid-South and California’s Sacramento Delta.

Planting rice accessions

Plans are to plant a global rice array at the UA’s Maricopa Agriculture Center with 3,000 rice accessions from around the world whose sequences are already known.

“The idea would be to phenotype these varieties under multiple growing conditions, and take about 500 different measurements that will help show us how to build a variety that grows well in a specific region,” Wing says. “Then we can put them together and breed something quickly.”

He adds, “Arizona could establish itself as a national and international leader in transitional genomics, translating basic discoveries into practical solutions for agriculture.”

Similar plantings would be made in California and overseas in India, China, Africa, and the Philippines, with an eye over the long term in growing rice in salt water.

The AGI is negotiating for a possible partnership site at Research Triangle Park, a $20 million former Monsanto facility, where another global rice array could be planted and observed. 

“It’s already built and could be integrated into a national phenotyping center similar to those in China, Australia, and Holland,” he says.

Wing says California farmers, and to a lesser extent those in Arizona, will play a part in solving the puzzle.

“What we’re doing with rice can be applied to sorghum, wheat, corn, lettuce - all crops grown in the two-state region. Farmers need to work together with scientists and that’s really a mission for Cooperative Extension where they could provide farmers with seed that’s been tested in field trials as high-yielding and more nutritious.”

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