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Research aims to boost rice production


Brigid Veale SCU communications manager
17 July 2006
Southern Cross University researchers will spend the next three years developing high quality cold-tolerant rice varieties that could save Australia's rice industry up to $60 million a year.

SCU's Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics has received $310,000 from the Australia Research Council (ARC) and just over $200,000 from the Rural Industries Research Development Corporation (RIRDC) for two research projects looking at the genetic components of rice.

Director of the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics Professor Robert Henry said the first project, funded through an ARC Linkage Grant and in partnership with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, would look at the starch properties of rice.

"The discoveries will be of value for the model crop, rice, and for other cereal and food crops. There are human health benefits from the availability of technologies to combine desirable nutritional traits and attractiveness to consumers," Professor Henry said.

"For example, when you look at a rice grain in most varieties the preferred grain is translucent, but some varieties are susceptible to being chalky, and that is genetically determined. We will be trying to identify the genes associated with key production and quality traits."

He said the project would also look at developing a single test which would map the genetic make-up of different rice varieties.

In the past two years, the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics has discovered the gene that makes rice fragrant and the gene that controls the gelatinisation temperature of rice. Other genes have been identified that control the height of the plant (which leads to higher yield) and disease resistance.

Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics research scientist Dr Dan Waters said at present individual tests had to be carried out to determine what genes were present in each variety.

"We want to be able to map what is in the different varieties using a single test, which will identify more than one gene," Dr Waters said.

The second project, funded by RIRDC, is designed to help the Australian rice industry minimise the yield loss as a result of cold temperatures.

"As the rice is growing the critical stage in its development is just when it's forming pollen. Temperatures below about 18 degrees Celsius start to damage the pollen and stop it developing, which leads to sterility. Sterile plants do not produce rice seed and so yields are lowered," Dr Waters said.

"What is known is that different varieties of rice have different levels of tolerance. This project is all about determining what the genetic control is for cold tolerance."

Dr Waters said once the gene was isolated it would allow for the efficient breeding of cold-tolerant varieties.

In Australia rice is grown as a summer crop in the southern part of NSW, near the Victorian border. While it is generally hot during the growing period, occasional cold fronts lead to cold damage.

"Three out of four years it is a huge problem. Rice yield losses due to low temperature cost the Australian rice industry up to $60 million," he said.

The three-year project will be completed at the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics at SCU's Lismore campus and at the Yanco Agricultural Institute in Leeton, NSW.