60-Second Science

Rice Really Rises to the Occasion

A study in the journal Nature reports the discovery of rapid-growth genes in rice varieties that can withstand flooding by quickly rising above the new water line. Engineering other strains to include the "snorkel" genes could help rice yields. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

You’ve probably seen pictures of farmers wading ankle deep through waterlogged rice paddies. Rice, it seems, is a crop that likes it wet. But if the water gets too deep, the plants can actually drown. To help rescue sinking rice, Japanese scientists have discovered a pair of genes that allow inundated plants to keep their heads above water.

Most of the high-yield rice varieties grown today can’t cope with being completely submerged. But a few strains of rice are actually fine with a good flood. As the water levels rise, so do they: their stems can shoot up 10 inches in a single day. But those fast-growing strains produce five times less rice than the higher-yield varieties.

To get the best of both worlds, the scientists studied some submersible rice and found two genes that are not present in shallow-water varieties. These genes, dubbed Snorkel 1 and 2, switch on a program that triggers rapid stem growth, results published in the August 20th issue of Nature.

Using genetic engineering to toss those Snorkel genes into rice that can’t hold its breath could prove a real lifesaver. Not just to the plants, but to the people who rely on them for food.

—Karen Hopkin

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