Rice genome map could spell bigger crops

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Rice, Dna

A group of international scientists has sequenced the complete rice
genome, something that could be used to improve the quality and
size of crops. The discovery may also be developed to apply to
wheat and barley.

Six years of research work conducted by The International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, which includes The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR)​, has found that the completed sequence for the genome consists of around 400 million DNA bases holding 37,544 genes on rice's 12 chromosomes.

"Rice is a critically important crop, and this finished sequence represents a major milestone,"​ said Robin Buell, lead investigator for TIGR's portion of the project. "We know the scientific community can use these data to develop new varieties of rice that deliver increased yields and grow in harsher conditions."

Currently 400 million tonnes of rice is consumed in the world each year, making it a staple food commodity for half the world's population. These sums mean that even the smallest alterations to the production of crops could have a major impact on the world's leading food commodity.

As rice is genetically similar to other crops such as maize, wheat, barley, sugarcane and rye, the discovery could also help to map out similar gene sequences that will help to boost these crops, too.

"Rice is the Rosetta Stone for crop genomes,"​ Buell said. She added that the rice genome could provide a base study for a number of key cereal crops, and that as it has a smaller genome than maize or wheat, it offers a better candidacy as a primary study.

Scientist and food experts now know that with the world's population rapidly heading for the 7 billion mark, feeding everyone is a growing problem that has to be tackled now. In line with the population growth, world rice production must increase 30 per cent over the next 20 years if all the extra mouths are to be fed.

The scientists that have cracked the rice genome mystery say that in turn, the newly discovered sequence should provide a roadmap for agricultural researchers using both biotechnology and conventional farming methods to develop hardier, more resistant strains of rice.

To achieve this the next step will be to identify and isolate the specific genetic traits responsible for increasing yield, protecting against disease as well as providing drought resistance.

The International Rice Genome Sequencing Project concentrated on the subspecies of rice, Oryza, japonica, cultivated in Japan, Korea and the US as part of efforts to discover the genome using the resources of scientific groups in ten nations, including China, Japan, France, the UK and the US.

"Much as the Human Genome Project has revolutionized biology, the rice genome promises to inspire new cereal crop research,"​ remarked TIGR president Claire Fraser. "This is a major step forward for agriculture."

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