Updated on 23 August 2012
A close-up of roots that can increase grain production by drawing more phosphorus (source: www.irri.org)
Singapore: Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute, headquartered in the Philippines, have pinpointed a gene in an Indian variety of rice that enables rice plants to produce around 20 percent more grain by increasing uptake of phosphorus, an important but limited plant nutrient. The discovery unlocks the potential to improve food security with the lowest value phosphorus-deficient land. It will allow them to grow more rice to add to global production and earn more.
The discovery was published in the science journal Nature. The gene, PSTOL1, stands for Phosphorus Starvation Tolerance and helps rice grow a larger, better root system and thereby access more phosphorus.
Farmers can apply phosphorus fertilizers to increase productivity but on problem soils phosphorus is often locked in the soil and unavailable to plants. Also, phosphorus fertilizer is often unaffordable to poor farmers. Adding to the problem is that phosphorus is a non-renewable natural resource and rock phosphate reserves - the source of most phosphorus fertilizers - are running out.
"For many years we have searched for genes that improve phosphorus uptake," said Dr Sigrid Heuer, senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and leader of the team that published the discovery in Nature. "We've known for a long time that the traditional rice variety Kasalath from India has a set of genes that helps rice grow well in soils low in phosphorus."
Kasalath's superior performance under phosphorus deficiency was initially discovered by Dr Matthias Wissuwa from the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences. He then started collaborating with the IRRI and shared the DNA information of Kasalath. The current research was supported and facilitated by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Program.