Genetically modified rice may hold key to solving food shortages caused by climate change
- Reducing the number of stomata in rice plants could improve their tolerance to salt water, University of Sheffield researchers say
- As sea levels rise, seawater is reaching places it wouldn’t go before, causing increasing damage to crops
- Scientists in Sheffield have discovered that rice plants with fewer stomata are more drought-tolerant and require up to 60% less water – and now they have shown that the same plants can grow in saltwater conditions
- Rice is arguably the most important food crop on Earth – 3.5 billion people depend on it every day and 30% of the world’s freshwater supply is used to grow it
New research from the University of Sheffield has found that genetically engineering rice to be more salt-tolerant could allow it to grow where it would otherwise not be able to grow.
As climate change causes sea levels to rise, more and more places around the world are battling saltwater inundation — salty water from seawater that is flooding further inland and destroying crops that cannot cope with increased salinity.
Rice is one of the most affected crops — the most important carbohydrate on earth on which 3.5 billion people depend every day — but growing it is becoming increasingly difficult in countries such as Vietnam due to increased disturbance from seawater.
However, findings from the University of Sheffield’s Sustainable Food Institute suggest that genetically modifying rice to reduce the number of stomata – tiny openings for water loss – makes it more tolerant to salt.
Stomata are openings in most plants that regulate photosynthesis to absorb carbon dioxide and release water vapour. A few years ago, scientists in Sheffield revealed that reducing the number and size of rice stomata could allow them to use up to 60% less water, making them highly beneficial in drought-prone regions.
These findings, along with these new results, are published in new botanistmeaning that rice can adapt to environments made harsher by climate change, which would help address global food insecurity.
However, the researchers also found that reducing the number and size of stomata may make it harder for rice to grow in extremely hot temperatures. Therefore, different modifications are required to ensure that rice can be grown as efficiently as possible in different countries and environments. For example – larger rice plants with fewer stomata may be better suited to growing in extremely warm temperatures.
Dr Robert Kane, lead author of the study from the University of Sheffield’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “Rice is a hugely important food crop, eaten daily by more than half the world’s population. Ensuring it can survive the harsher conditions created by rice .Climate change is essential to feeding a growing population projected to reach 10 billion in 60 years.
“Our results shed light on how rice can be modified to grow as efficiently as possible in different climates – rice varieties with fewer stomata can survive in places with less water and brackish water. At the same time, less stomata, Larger native rice varieties are able to thrive in hotter temperatures.”
Researchers at the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with the Higher Agricultural Technology Research Institute (HATRI) in Vietnam, studied 72 natural and genetically modified rice varieties. They are now planning to investigate whether dwarf rice varieties, which yield the most crops, can be made more heat-tolerant.