Environment

Addition of a single gene makes rice more environmentally friendly

SUSIBA2 (right) compared with a control strain
SUSIBA2 (right) compared with a control strain
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SUSIBA2 (right) compared with a control strain
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SUSIBA2 (right) compared with a control strain
Rice feeds over half the people on Earth, but it's production results in a significant proportion of methane emissions
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Rice feeds over half the people on Earth, but it's production results in a significant proportion of methane emissions

The world's growing population faces a constant string of tradeoffs. On the one hand, we need more rice to feed ourselves. On the other hand, control of greenhouse gases is a major priority and rice growing generates a lot of methane. It seems like a Catch 22, but a team led by the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has come up with a genetically engineered strain of rice that not only produces almost no methane, but also more grains.

Rice feeds over half the people on Earth and, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), is the world's second most valuable and third largest crop. The trouble is that rice paddies with their warm, wet soils, harbor colonies of microbes that feed off the carbon dioxide dissolved in the mud and convert it to methane. Such paddies are one of the main sources of atmospheric methane, accounting for up to 17 percent of global emissions. This is significant because while it isn't the most prevalent greenhouse gas, methane traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

The trick is to starve the microbes of carbon dioxide by diverting it out of the paddy and into the plants.

Normally, during photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is converted to sugar and starch. Directing more carbon dioxide to the rice grains makes them plumper and more nutritious, and funneling it to the stems and leaves creates more biomass for fuel and livestock feed. The PNNL team reasoned that if they could persuade rice to act more like other cereals, it would not only increase yields, but also help cut down on methane emissions.

SUgar SIgnaling in BArley 2 (SUSIBA2) is a new genetically modified rice strain that's the result of over tens years of work involving scientists from the United States, Sweden, and China, plus three years of Chinese field studies. According to the team, it kills two birds with one stone, so its rice paddies emit almost no methane during growth while producing more starch and biomass that can be used for fuel and feed.

Rice feeds over half the people on Earth, but it's production results in a significant proportion of methane emissions
Rice feeds over half the people on Earth, but it's production results in a significant proportion of methane emissions

The strain was created by the introduction of a single gene from barley to common rice. This master regulator gene triggers several other genes and causes the rice plant to divert more carbon to its grains, leaves, and stems as happens in barley. This starves the microbes in the paddy soils around the rice plant roots, which normally generate methane while increasing crop yields.

The team plans to continue studying SUSIBA2 and the mechanisms it uses for carbon reallocation as well as learning more about how the rice roots interact with the resident microbes.

"The need to increase starch content and lower methane emissions from rice production is widely recognized, but the ability to do both simultaneously has eluded researchers," says Christer Jansson, director of plant sciences at PNNL. "As the world's population grows, so will rice production. And as the Earth warms, so will rice paddies, resulting in even more methane emissions. It's an issue that must be addressed."

The team's results were published in Nature.

Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

11 comments
Robert Walther
Genetically modified grain! Doomed, we're all Doomed! Rice and corn et al should be left the way god intended when he created them 6000 years ago. I only included 'Al' because he is my uncle and has been unchanged for over 50 years.
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
Congratulations to the scientists involved. This is a crucial breakthrough addressing the need to curb the emissions of these rice paddies. If successfully implemented everywhere, we would see the last methane traces in the atmosphere originating from paddies disappear in 20 years time. That should make rice eaters like me less guilty about eating it knowing they contribute quite a chunk to global warming, and make sure future generations can continue to eat rice.
Pete Rasmussen
More Frankenfood. I can assure you it won't be on my plate!
John Dziki
Of course the anti GM people will burn this to the ground.
Gavin Roe
impressive, but how does it taste, and will we glow in the dark like lab mice
christopher
All good until whatever was kept at bay by that methane comes back to eat the rice. You can *bet* that if rice was not using so much carbon to start with, there was a good reason... The "traps 20x more" blah sounds like unrealistic hysteria to me, without checking the facts yet: might be true, probably is not. update (i had a quick look): seems it absorbs only 1/4 of the heat or less (just that there's more of it) - but there's no way to slice or dice the numbers to reach a 20x factor, so someone's making global doom numbers up again it seems. Yes - we are doomed. No - nothing you can do will make any noticeable difference to that fact, whether or not it's 20x, 112x, or 0.25x, or however else you play maths on it. We suck, we reproduce, and we keep on sucking. That's an immutable, unalterable, fact. The few who choose to suck less than the others are simply deluding themselves (but still reproducing anyhow - go figure...)
Synchro
Christopher, you weren't looking very hard. There are no made-up numbers here. This is the top hit on google for "methane CO2 equivalence": http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html It's slightly difficult to compare the warming effect of CO2 and methane directly because although methane is far more potent as a greenhouse gas, it breaks down over time in a way that CO2 does not, so its warming potential depends on the time frame you're looking at. Over 100 years the factor is about 25, but over shorter periods it will be higher, and over very long periods, CO2 may be higher. I think this kind of GM is far less objectionable than that used by the likes of Monsanto. It's fairly likely you could produce the same effect by cross-breeding rather than direct gene manipulation (though that's a fair way to establish a target), though you might get more unpredictable side-effects that way. Even organic veg has been subject to thousands of generations of deliberate gene manipulation - for example broccoli is an entirely man-made hybrid.
Pete0097
More important than it's lowering of greenhouse gasses, can we digest it and will it help us nutrinat wise?
Don Duncan
Robert: Corn and many other plants you eat have been genetically manipulated for thousands of years. For example, corn was about the size of the "baby corn" you see in salads or pickled. The larger size was increased over millennia by selective breeding. Is this natural? What is natural? The common practice is to exclude anything manmade from being natural. Why? Is this logical? Or does this distinction reflect an anti-man (anti- mind) bias? I think so, and I challenge it as arbitrary. That said, I don't eat GM because I don't trust Monsanto, big Pharma, or the govt. to protect us. christopher: I agree. More research is needed on the net effects. The irony is a simple solution to both problems was developed in the early '80s by a Japanese microbiologist who grew rice without constant submersion, plowing, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, and had healthier, higher yielding crops than anyone else. See: "The One Straw Revolution" or "The Natural Way of Farming" by Masanobu Fukuoka.
John Banister
Of course, the real question is how it tastes after fermentation and distillation.