This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the U.S. Department of Agriculture blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the agency’s rich science and research portfolio.
I had it for dinner last night, and I’m sure more than a few of you did as well. For billions of people around the world, rice is the cornerstone of their diet. When so many people depend upon a particular crop it becomes even more important to protect it, especially from problems we can’t control, like the weather. Researchers have worked for years to breed rice that can withstand unpredictable flooding, and recently have they been successful.
Dr. Julia Bailey-Serres led an international team of researchers to identify a gene in rice that controlled flood tolerance. The project, which was funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, identified the Sub1A gene. This gene allows rice to be submerged in water for more than two weeks with little impact on the plant. The gene was incorporated into high-yield varieties of rice and has since been used around the world. Flooding is especially a problem for poor farmers in South Asia, where low fields depend upon unpredictable rainfall and can often flood without warning. This discovery has helped avoid food shortages after floods and provides a more dependable food supply.
But flooding is only one issue that rice farmers have to fight. Drought is just as prevalent and disastrous around the world and Dr. Bailey-Serres and her team are now working to solve this problem as well. They recently announced that the Sub1A gene that controls flood tolerance also appears to help rice recover from drought. The drought tolerance will be field tested in the near future, but shows promise.