Sept. 13 - Scientists in the Philippines say their recent discovery of a gene that boosts phosphorous levels in rice could have a profound impact on developing nations affected by climate change and poor soil. The gene was found in an Indian rice variety but is being bred into other rice crops where it has boosted yields by up to 20 percent. Rob Muir has more.
They look like ordinary seedlings, but Kasalath rice, a hardy variety from India, contains a gene that could transform rice production around the world. The gene is called Phosphorous Starvation Tolerance-1 and scientists led by Sigrid Heuer at the International Rice Research Institute outside Manila, say that when bred into other rice varieties, the gene boosted yields by 20 percent. (SOUNDBITE) SIGRID HEUER - SENIOR SCIENTIST, INTERNATIONAL RICE RESEARCH INSTITUTE, SAYING: "When we look at the young seedlings, we find that they have a little bit larger root system, at a very early developmental stage. And this enables plants to explore a larger area in the soil, to forage, how we call this, more phosphorous. And this gives the plant, especially under phosphorous deficient conditions, give it a growth advantage." And that advantage, says Heuer, will bring benefits to farmers and consumers. Phosphorous is a nutrient crucial to the plants' development but farmers in regions with poor soil have to boost phosphorous levels with expensive fertilisers. By planting rice containing the phosphorous boosting gene, Heuer says the fertiliser becomes less important ultimately decreasing productions costs. (SOUNDBITE) SIGRID HEUER - SENIOR SCIENTIST, INTERNATIONAL RICE RESEARCH INSTITUTE, SAYING: "The phosphorous you apply with the fertilizer is not efficiently taken by the plant so we hope by that with this gene, with the larger root system, the fertilizer applied can be taken up more efficiently. So in the long run, the farmer can reduce the doses and get the same amount of nutrients into the plants." And local farmers like Alfondso Marano say they're more than willing to try it. (SOUNDBITE) ALFONSO MERAÑA - RICE FARMER, SAYING: "If that new seedling really works, and it's not too costly and can indeed get a bigger harvest and earn more, of course I would be in favour of that. Maybe it'll bring instant riches. I mean, a good yield will mean a boost to our livelihood." After the Philippines, the first country to find out will be Indonesia where genetically engineered seedlings will be distributed within the next four years. The Institute also has plans to start breeding programmes throughout Asia, South America and Africa with the hope of boosting rice harvests and increasing food security around the world.