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New research findings could boost rice yields
The State News
MSU researchers have identified a gene in rice that regulates how easily individual grains fall from the stalk they grow on — a discovery that could improve global rice production. Rice is the main food source for about half the world's population, said Tao Sang, an MSU associate professor and leader of MSU's research team.

"People in some regions of the world still lose a lot of their crop because the grains fall off too easily," Sang said. "There's a lot of time and energy that goes into taking care of these crops, so you want to make sure at the end you don't lose a lot of it."

Nearly 10,000 years ago, farmers unknowingly grew rice plants that contained a specific genetic mutation, which caused grains of rice to stay on the plant after reaching maturity.

The selection of that particular plant was an important part of the domestication of rice, which occurs when the plant becomes cultivated for agricultural purposes, Sang said.

He added that this is the first gene identified that controls the process of abscission, or how plant organs separate from the plant body. Sang said the research is focused on understanding the biochemical process that controls abscission.

"We're trying to get a general understanding of the abscission process, which is very poorly known," Sang said. "Once you work out the basics, then you can improve crop yield."

The gene can be used to modify the strength of attachment between the grain and the stalk.

Only six states produce 99 percent of the rice grown in the U.S., said Tony Prislovsky, quality control supervisor at the Producers Rice Mill Inc. in Arkansas.

Prislovsky said grains falling from the plants before the harvest can be a concern for farmers.

"If the rice falls off onto the ground, it affects your crop yield and the farmer gets paid by how much is produced per acre," he said.

He added that strong winds or storms can cause rice to separate from the stalk early.

"When rice is ready to be harvested and you get a big storm, you can have a lot of rice falling off the stalk," Prislovsky said.

Sang and his fellow researchers spent five years observing the strength of attachment of the rice grains to the stalk, as well as isolating DNA from about 12,000 seedlings. The isolation process could have been long and costly if it weren't for a discovery made by Sang's fellow researcher, Changbao Li.

Li, a plant biology research associate at MSU, developed a faster way to isolate DNA, which drastically reduced the amount of time spent and the cost of the research.

Li said isolating DNA is a time-consuming process, adding that the process the researchers originally used could isolate DNA from 50 samples a day and required a special machine.

"With 12,000 plants, it would have taken a long time," he said.

Li said with the method he developed, the researchers could isolate a couple hundred strands of DNA in a day.

Sang said the completed map of the rice genome, or the complete set of the organism's genes, accelerated the research by making it easier to identify specific genes needed for the project.

Sang said rice also is a good plant to work with because it has so many close grain relatives.
MGR Archive 13.4.2006
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