The discovery of a pair of genes that prompt rice plants to grow extra-tall when submerged in water could potentially lead to new hardier varieties of rice that yield food even in flooded conditions, and could help out farmers in flood-prone nations like Thailand and Cambodia, according to a study published in Nature.
Researchers discovered a pair of genes known as SNORKEL, which spurs growth among the plants when they are completely submerged, allowing the plants to survive by keeping their leaf tops above the water. As water levels rise, accumulation of the plant hormone ethylene activates the SNORKEL genes, making stem growth more rapid. When the researchers introduced the genes into rice that does not normally survive in deep water, they were able to rescue the plants from drowning [AP].
There are already strains of rice that can survive waterlogged conditions such as those that affect about a quarter of the world’s rice-producing land. The flood-hardy plants, however, often produce only one-quarter to one-third of the crop that can be harvested from higher-yielding plants.
Adding the SNORKEL gene to high-yielding rice plants could potentially result in rice crops that can both survive flooding and produce an abundance of food. “It’s hoped that the findings will help researchers to breed rice that can be grown in lowland areas that are frequently flooded during the rainy season” [Reuters], the authors wrote. Still, these new, hardier rice plants would need to undergo rigorous testing before widespread use to ensure they pose no unintended side effects for consumers.
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