U. SHEFFIELD (UK)—An effort to use modern molecular tools to produce a more efficient and higher-yielding form of rice to ease the threat of hunger for the poor is under way in the Philippines.

Currently, more than a billion people worldwide live on less than a dollar a day and nearly one billion live in hunger. About half of the world´s population consumes rice as a staple cereal, so boosting its productivity is crucial to achieving long-term global food security.

The project is being led by Paul Quick, professor in the University of Sheffield‘s department of animal and plant sciences and coordinated by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

The work is in conjunction with Project Sunshine, a Sheffield project that aims to unite scientists in finding ways to harness the power of the sun and meet the  increasing food and energy needs of the world´s population in the context of climate and global environment change.

Researchers are studying photosynthesis—the process by which plants use solar energy to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into the carbohydrates required for growth—used by rice.

Unlike some plants, rice has a type of photosynthesis known as C3, in which the capture of carbon dioxide is relatively inefficient. Other plants, such as maize and sorghum, have evolved a much more efficient form of photosynthesis known as C4 and their crop yields are improved by more than 50 percent.

Scientists are looking for ways to change the biochemistry and anatomy of rice leaves to increase grain yield by introducing a C4 mode of photosynthesis.  The project is in the gene discovery stage, which involves randomly mutating sorghum and rice to try and determine which genes regulate and determine C4.

Phase two will involve engineering rice to allow the team to test the gene function.  In addition, for the first time, natural variations in rice are being studied using IRRI’s world gene bank of rice to look for natural variation. In total, the project is expected to span a 15-year period.

Researchers hope that the re-engineering of photosynthesis in rice will lead to the ability for plants to produce 50 percent more grain using less fertilizer and less water. The project will also act as a model project for changing any other C3 crops, like wheat and barley, into C4.

“C4 rice is a completely novel idea. Nowhere else in the world and never before have scientists been able to supercharge a C3 plant and convert its photosynthetic mechanism into C4,” Quick says.

“A C4 photosynthetic engine in rice would increase the efficiency of solar energy conversion by 50 percent and nearly double its water use efficiency, as well as improving its fertilizer-use efficiency. This innovation will improve the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people and contribute to protecting the natural environment.”

“Increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis is probably essential if we are to deliver the required increase in crop yield needed for global food security,” says Peter Horton, professor in the department of  biology and biotechnology.

The research is being funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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