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Process IDs Rice Traits to Help Tsunami-Hit Rice Growers

Salt-tolerant and intolerant rice plants (Iwate Biotechnology Research Centre)

Salt-tolerant and intolerant rice plants (Iwate Biotechnology Research Centre)

A collaboration between scientists in Japan and the U.K. is developing methods to identify genetic markers that can help cut the time needed to breed salt-tolerant and shorter rice to help Japanese growers recover from the tsunami in March 2011. The new process, called MutMap, is described online in the journal Nature Biotechnology (paid subscription required).

The tsunami inundated paddy fields in Japan with a salty sludge, which created problems for growers of the current strains of rice. To develop new strains of rice, important traits such as drought and salt tolerance, semi-dwarfism, plant height, and yield are often controlled by many genes each having a subtle effect. These properties make it difficult to identify the complete genetic basis for these traits to develop new crop varieties, and normally require a process lasting five to 10 years.

The team led by Ryohei Terauchi of the Iwate Biotechnology Research Center in Narita, Japan, working with the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, U.K., took a strain of cultivated rice with at least some the desired properties, and with MutMap, created a mutated version with different traits. The researchers took the mutated version with the desired new traits (e.g., greater salt tolerance), crossed it with the original cultivated version, and grew it in the field.

The investigators could then identify the genetic differences between the cross-bred offspring and the original cultivated version. “The differences can be unequivocally observed even if they are small,” says Sophien Kamoun, co-author on the paper and head of The Sainsbury Laboratory.

In this project, the researchers first focused on plant height because of its crucial role historically in determining crop yield. They also measured six other traits of agricultural importance, and have since established a collection of mutated versions for salt tolerance which they are screening for markers. Once these markers have been identified, they will be used to develop new types of rice that can be grown in paddy fields flooded by the tsunami last March.

This new process using MutMap, cuts the normal five to 10 year period for developing new strains to about one year. “Until now, plant breeding has not been able to take advantage of the genomics revolution,” says Terauchi. “MutMap overcomes one of the greatest limitations, which has been the time it takes to identify genetic markers for desirable traits.”

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