Monday, July 30, 2007

"Green" super rice one goal of newly formed UA-China Shennong Center

“Green” super rice is one goal of the newly formed Shennong Center for Crop Functional Genomics, a collaboration between The University of Arizona (UA) and Huazhong Agricultural University (HZAU) in Wuhan, China. Green refers not to the color, but the fact that the rice will be grown under very environmentally friendly conditions.

UA Department of Plant Sciences professor and BIO5 member Rod Wing, PhD, is working together on the rice project with Qifa Zhang, PhD, who heads HZAU’s National Key Laboratory for Crop Improvement – the number one crop molecular biology lab in China. “Rice feeds half the world and that half will double in the next quarter century,” says Dr. Wing. “Countries that depend on rice need to double the yield on less land, less water and in poorer soils. The 'green' super rice will do that with less fertilizers and pesticides, which is great for the environment.” Dr. Wing has significantly contributed to the sequencing of one species of domesticated rice. This understanding of domesticated rice, combined with the knowledge gained from his most recent work studying the genomes of wild relatives of rice will ultimately lead to crop improvements.

The wild relatives of rice can grow in conditions unsuited to domestic rice. Pinning down genes linked to desirable properties such as crop yield, drought tolerance, and resistance to pests, heat, cold, weeds, salt and pathogens could make it possible to grow domesticated rice in less than ideal environments, thus increasing production acreage and helping to reduce hunger around the world.

While Dr. Wing’s laboratory is studying the genome organization and evolution of 14 wild relatives of rice, Dr. Zhang’s laboratory has developed genetic populations with three of the same wild relatives that can be analyzed for yield, drought and pathogen resistance. Once a beneficial trait is identified in these populations, it can be isolated for study. Together, the Shennong Center researchers will utilize this system to develop green super rice varieties. Additionally, it also will be used by the international community to help identify the function of all 30,000 genes in rice. “Longtime relationships between the UA Plant Sciences Department and Huazhong Agricultural University are resulting in complementary talents and systems coming together in ways that will benefit many people,” says Dr. Wing.

Other projects are in development between HZAU, UA’s BIO5 Institute, and the following UA departments: Plant Sciences, Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Molecular and Cellular Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. For example, BIO5 Director and plant scientist Vicki Chandler, PhD, is working together with HZAU on finding ways to prevent a major fungal disease in corn plants, a particular concern for farmers and plant breeders in China. They also are interested in how to make corn plants more tolerant to submergence in water, which could translate to a large increase in yield in the regions of southern China where flooding is a serious threat.

The Shennong Center for Crop Functional Genomics was formally initiated during a trip to Wuhun, China in May 2007 by Dr. Wing, Dr. Chandler and other UA plant scientists and BIO5 members David Gang, PhD, David Galbraith, PhD, and Mark Orbach, PhD. Other UA participants included plant scientist Zhongguo Xiong, BIO5 member Elizabeth Vierling, PhD, from the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Molecular and Cellular Biology, and postdoctoral research associate Jeremy Edwards from the Galbraith lab.

Collaboration goals include not only research, but also workshops, training and faculty and student exchanges. Letters of invitation have been sent for several faculty and students from HZAU to visit UA and visa applications are underway.

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