Bigger Rice Plants, Better Rice Plants

This entry is part 10 of 20 in the series Spring - 2014

Bigger Rice Plants

Better Rice Plants

By Kortny Rolston

“The plant has both more food and bioenergy potential, a more sustainable model than burning it.”

Creating the Complete Crop

When it comes to raising rice and other grains, the general rule is that smaller plants produce more seed – or food – while larger plants, with their bulky stalks, generate more biomass. Crop plants rarely do both. They put their limited energy into growing bigger or bearing more seed.

Which makes a plant in Colorado State University’s “rice lab” all the more unusual.

The mutation, identified by a screen of plants at the International Rice Research Institute, is double the size of its wild-type parent and bears twice as much seed.

“It’s a double positive,” said Daniel Bush, professor of biology and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs. “It has both more food and bioenergy potential.”

Bush and fellow CSU researchers Jan Leach and John McKay, both with the College of Agricultural Sciences, and colleagues at IRRI, are now working to identify the gene responsible.

Such a plant could benefit rice farmers, the environment, and the world.

More seeds per plant feed more people, which is important since rice is the primary food staple for nearly 60 percent of the world’s population. Moreover, farmers in China, India, and other Asian countries, where much of the world’s rice is grown, harvest the seed and leave the stalks in the field, where they are later burned to make way for the next planting.

Field burning can be a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in these countries because often two or three rice crops often are planted a year. Harvesting the leftover stalk and leaves, and converting them into a bioenergy source would reduce burning and provide farmers with another product to sell.

Some Cambodian rice processors are already using biofuels made from rice residues. But these processing plants use only the hulls from the rice seed, and not the stems and leaves, Leach said. It’s less efficient for smaller farms in rural areas to transport residues because they don’t generate enough biomass with existing varieties.

“You need a certain amount of biomass to run these processing plants and make transporting materials cost-effective,” Leach said. “Growing a larger rice plant that contains more mass would expand the use of rice residue as a biofuel, a more sustainable model than burning it.”

The new rice plant is a breakthrough for the CSU research group working to improve rice yields and introduce more sustainable farming practices.

“This gets us closer to using the complete crop,” Leach said.

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