Norwich scientists achieve breakthrough in rice breeding

23rd Jan 2012

A breakthrough in breeding rice-tolerant varieties to help feed the world has been achieved by scientists at Norwich Research Park.

It could slash the time to produce commercial rice varieties from five-to-ten years to a year, said Prof Sophien Kamoun, who is head of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre.

Working with Japanese scientists, a new technique to identify and isolate traits such as salt tolerance has been developed. Details of the new method, called MutMap were published in the scientific journal, Nature Biotechnology, on the 22nd Jan.

It will enable scientists and breeders around the world to accelerate crop breeding programmes. “Essentially in a relatively short period of time, this method gives the breeder a plant with an elite variety with the desired traits. The beauty of the new method is its simplicity,” said Prof Kamoun, who was a co-author on the paper.

“The MutMap method will enable plant scientists and breeders to develop new crop varieties in nearer a year rather than five to ten years,” he added.

“Until now, plant breeding has not been able to take advantage of the genomics revolution,” said lead author Prof Ryohei Terauchi from Japan’s Iwate Biotechnology Research Centre. “MutMap overcomes one of the greatest limitations, which has been the time it takes to identify genetic markers for desirable traits,” he added.

The scientists looked at plant height because of its crucial role in yield, which had driven the Green Revolution in wheat and rice production in the 1960s. Over the decades, this aspect of semi-dwarfism had not been fully investigated or exploited. When scientists at the JIC first identified the semi-dwarf gene in a model plant, Arabidopsis, it was later found in rice in 2002.

In the latest study, six other traits of agricultural importance were identified. Prof Terauchi’s team including Dr Kentaro Yoshida, who was working at Colney, looked for salt tolerant genes.

Traditionally, it has been difficult for plant breeders to identify traits such as drought, salt tolerance, semi-dwarfism, plant height and yield, with precision. And in the past, it has taken years to cross-breed such traits from wild relatives; without genetic engineering, it has required years, if not decades of back-crossing to “breed out” unnecessary features.

In the new method, scientists can work with an elite rice plant and identify the precise trait required, which can be cross-bred and then grown in the field. The difference between the progeny of this cross and the elite cultivar can then be identified.

Prof Kamoun said this method would not at this stage work for all plants but had been possible with rice because it is much less complicated than other cereals, such as wheat, which contain six sets of genetic material.

“I’m quite confident that some variation on this method can be applied to wheat. It can be totally applied to barley, for instance, as soon as the reference genome becomes available which is about to happen,” said Prof Kamoun.

“It is pretty straightforward to go to local African varieties and introduce some of these new traits and it will have a dramatic impact on yield in a relatively short period of time,” he said.

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