Sequencing the African Rice Genome

As the Earth’s population is predicted to increase to more than nine billion people by the year 2050, researchers have made a step forward in solving the “Nine Billion People Question.” The question poses the possibility of a lack of natural resources as a result of rising population growth. Through successfully sequencing the complete genome of Oryza glaberrima (African rice), scientists and agriculturalists will be better able to understand the crop’s growing patterns and this could allow for the development of modified rice varieties equipped to handle environmental hurdles.

Rice, which feeds half the world, is often deemed the most important food crop. In fact, scientists predict that  come the expected nine billion mark  “hardy, high-yield” crops such as African rice will become increasingly crucial for human survival in conditions of extreme climate change.

While the number of people needing to be fed continues to grow by at least two billion over four decades, crop production is nonetheless halting due to climate change, resulting in a scary combination. Rod A. Wing, who led the recent sequencing effort, also helped sequence the genome of Asian rice, which has since enabled the discovery of hundreds of “agriculturally important genes” which can allow for faster breeding cycles and even the ability for the plant to survive up to two weeks under water during flooding.

The genome for the wild tomato, Solanum pennellii, has also recently been published. Despite the fact that it is poisonous, the wild tomato can better tolerate dry conditions and can handle saltier soils. The genome will ensure that new varieties bred do not include any of its poisonous genes. The tomato, along with African rice, are two prominent examples of food modification that could save millions of human lives.

“The idea is to create a super-rice that will be higher yielding but will have less of an environmental impact,” said Wing, including varieties which could require less water, fertiliser and pesticides. African rice, which has already been crossed with Asian rice to produce new variations known as NERICA, independently selected many of the same genetic traits as its cousin. By developing types of rice which can hold Asian rice’s high yield and African rice’s high tolerance, scientists may have just found the answer to their original “9 billion” question.

Nick Magnanti

Sources: International Business Times, Science 2.0, Voice of America
Photo: International Business Times