California Scientists Honored

Humanitarian rice research is making a difference

Rice is one of the globe’s most important food staples. About half of the world’s seven billion people eat rice every day. Unfortunately, about 50 million acres of rice is grown in flood-prone regions of the world, and rice plants die if they’re completely submerged for more than three days.

But that’s changing, thanks to the work of two plant scientists from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Professor Pamela Ronald with the Department of Plant Pathology and the Agricultural Experiment Station, and David Mackill, adjunct professor with the Department of Plant Sciences, have helped develop a submergence- tolerant variety of rice that is producing yields up to five times greater than conventional varieties, improving life for rice growers around the world.

To honor their efforts, Ronald, Mackill and Kenong Xu, former postdoctoral fellow who is now an assistant professor of horticultural sciences at Cornell University, have been named laureates of The Tech Awards 2012 by The Tech Museum in San Jose, Calif., for using technology to benefit humanity and spark global change.

“It’s a wonderful honor,” says Mackill. “It’s very rewarding to know our work is making a difference.”

Submergence-Tolerant Rice Variety

Ronald, Mackill and Xu teamed up to identify a gene that enables rice to survive flooding and introduced that gene into a high-yielding rice variety. The result was a submergence-tolerant variety known as “Sub 1 rice,” which 1 million farmers planted in 2011, producing yields two to five times greater than conventional varieties.

The submergence-tolerant rice has the same taste, feel and harvest schedule as traditional rice. That’s one reason farmers – who themselves did extensive field tests of the rice in India and Bangladesh – are now using it.

Flooding is not much of an issue for rice farmers in California, but it is a concern for growers in the Southern United States, who are showing interest in the new variety. In the meantime, “Sub 1 rice” is saving lives in poor, flood-prone parts of the world.

“It’s estimated that 2 billion very poor farmers live in these flood-prone areas in Asia, and 75 million live on less than a dollar a day,” Ronald says. “So even a small change in the quantity of grain that can be harvested can have a huge impact on their families’ lives. I talked with several women in South Asia who told me the new variety is providing enough yield to feed their families and provide extra rice to sell.”

Ronald is now working on identifying other genes that confer to tolerance to stress or resistance to disease – major causes of crop loss worldwide. Mackill worked at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines where the new rice varieties were developed. Now based at UC Davis, Mackill is helping rice farmers throughout California, the nation and the world sustainably produce rice with good yields and great taste.

The University of California, Davis, contributed information for this article.

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