Creating a resilient rice

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Researchers from Australia and India are combining efforts to create a sustainable crop, despite draught and salinity conditions

Professor Mundree (centre) with two colleagues

 

Path-breaking research might just be the answer to a futuristic rice crop benefitting both farmers and consumers. Scientists at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) partnered with the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in New Delhi and Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU) in Coimbatore, to work toward a rice crop that will withstand drought and salinity conditions.

In its first year of research, Professor Sagadevan Mundree, Deputy Director of QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities spoke to Indian Link about the $600,000 project, funded jointly by the Australian government and the Department of Biotechnology, India under the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund.

“Our focus is to obtain molecular insights from a native Australian resurrection grass and use these insights to develop rice that is more resilient to drought and salinity stresses using biotechnology and molecular breeding approaches,” states Prof Mundree.

He goes on to say that the basis of this research comes from a native Australian resurrection grass collected near Charleville in Queensland. “This Australian grass can tolerate extreme environmental conditions, when dried for weeks can ‘resurrect’ (revived) within a time frame of 24-72 hours upon exposure to sunlight and water. We have used a number of strategies to isolate genes that confer drought and salinity tolerance from this grass, and one of our objectives is to transfer such genes into rice. Rice is a grass and is closely related to the resurrection grass,” explains Prof Mundree.

A fourth generation South African, Prof Mundree has worked on resurrection plants for over fifteen years in South Africa, and is currently leading a team of ten at QUT, ranging from post-doctoral scientists and research assistants to students from diverse multicultural backgrounds of Australian, Indian, Vietnamese, Iranian, Kenyan, Singaporean and Chinese origin. “Rice is an important crop to our region and particularly to the Indian sub-continent,” adds Prof Mundree.

So what is the current status of the research? “Here at QUT we have already isolated genes from the Australian resurrection grass that would be used to enhance stress tolerance in rice,” he explains. “From here on we get a better understanding on the workings of the drought and salinity tolerance genes, and are preparing for these to be transferred to rice by our Indian partners”.

What are the different strategies that will be utilised in this collaborative project? “This project will utilise both biotech and molecular breeding approaches to enhance drought and salinity tolerance in rice,” states Prof Mundree. “The gold nugget of this project is the opportunity to bring together scientists from QUT, ICGEB and TNAU with their collective expertise to achieve a satisfactory result”.

To the question of whether this research has garnered enough interest among rice growers, Professor Mundree quips, “This three year project has already attracted interest from farmers and companies who are keen to see a demonstration of stress-tolerant rice”.