Rice was red until farmers selected mutated white varieties, for good reasons, 10,000 years ago. Steve Mirsky reports.
White rice is one of the world’s most popular staple foods. But white rice also shows that humans have been manipulating genes since the dawn of civilization.
White rice evolved from wild red rice 10,000 years ago. And a new study finds that all white rice in the world is derived from two rice subspecies that experienced almost identical mutations. The study appears in the journal Public Library of Science Genetics.
The mutations shorten a protein that ordinarily would lead to color in rice. The researchers think that ancient farmers liked the odd white rice and actively bred and spread it, first across the Himalayan region and then across the rest of the world. Was it the color, or lack thereof, that made the grain more attractive? Maybe not. Because white rice varieties cooked faster—which requires less fuel. Also, insects and diseases were easier to spot on the lighter rice strains. So next time you bring a forkful of white rice to your mouth, remember the thousands of ancient geneticists who today keep you from seeing red.