Scientists in search of new varieties of rice as climate change threatens crops

Rice is one of the most important cereal crops in the world and makes up an important part of the human diet. Rice production in Europe, which currently accounts for two-thirds of the rice consumed on the continent, is being threatened by the effects of climate change, while most varieties are severely damaged by salinisation and giant snails.

Rice (Oryza sativa) is one of the most salt sensitive crops, and river deltas, where rice is grown in Europe, are becoming saltier due to rising temperatures, rising sea levels and water scarcity. Researchers from the EU, Argentina and China are developing salt-tolerant rice to protect this important crop not only from the effects of climate change, but also from the apple snail pest. The apple snail represents one of the worst crop pests of the recent times. It is calculated that the snails currently cause damage in rice fields worldwide equivalent to the loss of tens of billions of Euros each year.

For years, the measures adopted to combat the apple snail and stop its spread had failed, but in autumn of 2013, the Autonomous Government of Catalonia explored a new strategy with agreement of the European Union: flooding fields with seawater. This proved to be one of the few strategies which managed to curb the presence of the snail, which does not tolerate high salinity levels, but the residual salinity caused a loss of productivity of about 30% in some fields.

The NEURICE project is being funded by Horizon 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation programme, with € 4.608.000, in order to bring together experts from diverse fields such as biotechnology, farming and agriculture development, and salinity monitoring systems who would try to address this challenge through international collaborative research.

Scientists are using traditional breeding methods, crossing European with Asian rice lines. In Asia, there are some tropical varieties of rice which are highly tolerant to salinity, but which cannot be grown in the Mediterranean climate. It has recently been discovered that the salinity tolerance of these tropical Asian varieties is due to the presence of a chromosome segment called Saltol. Traditional, non-transgenic improvement techniques are being used to incorporate this feature into the commercial European varieties. The final plant is mainly European, but contains a small part of the Asiatic salt-tolerant genome.

The project results have been better than expected. “We have yet seen that most of the varieties obtained in the NEURICE project behave better than the original local varieties in salinity conditions. But surprisingly, some of the varieties behave also better than local ones in non-salinised fields, although we have to wait for the results of this second year to confirm this observed trend”, says the project coordinator and professor of Plant Physiology at the Universidad de Barcelona (UB), Salvador Nogués.

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