The Power of Genetics

The latest comments on my new blog reflect ample confusion about whether or not plant genetics can help poor farmers in India.

To demonstrate the power of genetics, I have posted a time-lapse video (4 months) showing the performance of a genetically improved rice in a flooded field plot at the International Rice Research Institute.

This video, shot by Gene Hettle, shows survival of the submergence tolerance (Sub1) rice, developed by our team, after a 17 day flood.

The Sub1 rice yielded about 3 fold more in these field trials. The IRRI team has also introduced the Sub1 gene into rice varieties favored by farmers in Bangladesh. In the hands of Bangladeshi farmers, yields are even higher- up to 5 fold increase in yield during floods compared to conventional varieties. This is important because 4 million tons of rice, enough to feed 30 million people is lost each year to floods. Flooding ie expected to worsen each year due to global warming. For more information, please see the recent CNN story.

Sub1 rice was a 15 year project, funded entirely by non-profit institutions. The seeds have now been released to farmers in India. For more on this story please see my blogs from bangladesh.

I received quite a few heartwarming emails in response to the CNN story. Here are a couple (names removed to protect privacy):

Dear Prof. Ronald,

I just read the article on "Fighting hunger with flood-tolerant rice" in CNN. I am immensely touched with what you and your students have been working on, and the breakthrough in your research. I am a native of India (born in Calcutta) and I know very well the implication of this research to millions of farmers in SouthEast Asia and more than billion people, whose staple food is rice. Both Bangladesh and India is devasted with monsoon floods, pretty much every other year, many of the farmers only survival is their rice (which not only sustain as their food but also as a cash crop). I am praying that you continue to work in this area; as food scarcity is a global security problem and survival of a civilization. There are too many hungry children in the world, it is for them.

Thank you and wish you more success.

Hello Pam,

I read about your discovery of flood sustaining rice and I must admit, this is the most happiest news I read in my recent memory. There are lots of people dying of starvation every day, and I have read and seen farmers whose families are ruined because of floods. I am very happy today that there are still some scientists in this world, who did not forget the fundamental needs of humans and who actually works for the benefit of mankind, in the true sense of its meaning, and remind the rest of the world what's being humane. I am not denying progress we make in inventing xbox systems, unmanned bomber aircraft, and missions to mars, but unfortunately, we are forgetting that, we first need to fill stomachs of millions of people and give them shelter. The calamities of flooding they are facing is because of greenhouse effects that we make.

I am an engineer working in Canada for last 9 years, and since I moved to this country from India when I was 23, I could never understand why some people are starving to death in some parts of the world, and at same time, people in other parts of the world are just ignoring it when they can help. But, today, I am extremely happy, to read this news. You shall remain my inspiration. God bless you and your family with peace and long life.

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It's wonderful to see that such a worthwhile project can be taken through to completion by non-profit organisations. As a side note, did anyone else have trouble getting the video to play?

By Daivd Hooks (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

I can't see the video either. And I'd really like to. This is a great sucess story. Too bad golden rice hasn't had it as easy.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

The video is available on YouTube.
That is an amazing difference in flood tolerance - and rice is a wetland plant to start with. I wish there were wheat and barley varieties that performed as well, we often have fields that look similar to the right side of those plots (Interlake region of Manitoba, Canada.) Unfortunately, rice isn't an option for us.

I'll be back to read your blog frequently.

Sorry about the video everyone. I will work with the science blog experts on monday to see what I can do to fix it. Thanks, Brad, for posting the YouTube version.

Golden rice is expected to be out in a couple years. There were a lot ore regulatory hurdles for that one because they engineered a daffodil gene and bacterial gene into rice. We used a gene from a weedy rice species.

If my understanding was correct, the Sub1 rice you used was created by introgression. Do you think it would have been harder to get the trials going (getting regulatory approvals, etc) for rice GMO varieties created by other means?

absolutely. If this was a wheat gene with an identical sequence to the gene from the grassy rice species, we would still be working on the regulatory approvals.

And what about using the same gene, but introducing it with a viral vector, instead of backcrossing? (If that makes any sense.)


I know the work is on hold but...

Do you think genetic drift problem with goat weed can be overcome so that roundup ready wheat is a possibility?

I know the Europeans don't want GMO wheat and my agrimafia was part of saying stop to the transgenic research but considering what is going on in Somalia and Ethiopia I think Europe can just stick the 1800 series.

Is work being done on glyphosate resistant cowpeas?

I know the farmers growing cowpeas want it so badly that they are giving in to the coffee and ironweed and just growing forage GMO roundup ready soybeans.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink