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The First Useful GM Crop?

Could rice genetically engineered to withstand flooding be the first actually useful GM crop? This article from CNN explains how precision breeding (taking genes from other plants in the same species) has allowed researchers at University of California-Davis to create a flood tolerant variety.

With climate change inducing increasingly unusual weather patterns, flooding could become a major problem to many rice farmers around the world.

“Normal rice dies after three days of complete flooding. Researchers know of at least one rice variety that can tolerate flooding for longer periods, but conventional breeding failed to create a strain that was acceptable to farmers.

So Ronald and her colleagues — David Mackill, senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and Julia Bailey-Serres, professor of genetics at the University of California-Riverside — spent the last decade working to find a rice strain that could survive flooding for longer periods. Mackill identified a flood-resistant gene 13 years ago in a low-yielding traditional Indian rice variety.

He passed along the information to Ronald, who isolated the gene, called Sub1, and introduced it into normal rice varieties, generating rice that could withstand being submerged in water for 17 days.”

While “precision breeding” sounds like a euphemism for GM, it is different from what we would regard as classic GM – it does not produce transgenic organisms. The process takes genes from within the same species and uses GM techniques to insert the desired genes into the target organism. Such precision bred organisms would not trigger traditional GM tests (this may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective). Precision breeding is a technique pioneered in NZ.

The article goes on to say:

“The researchers anticipate that the flood-tolerant rice plants will be available to farmers in Bangladesh and India within two years. Because the plants are the product of precision breeding, rather than genetic modification, they are not subject to the same regulatory testing that can delay release of genetically modified crops.”

I’m not sure I would agree that precision breeding is not GM but I concede the risk of unknown interactions associated with same-species DNA transfer is lower than that of transgenic transfer.

As for the ownership of the technology, it will not be of much benefit to 3rd world farmers if they are forced to buy new proprietary seed every year, rather than saving seed as they have done for thousands of years.


  1. Juha said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    I think rice has already been usefully genetically modified, into high-yield variants like IR8.

    Rice is a somewhat dodgy crop though, environmentally. Appears to produce plenty of greenhouse gases like methane, and requires huge amounts of water. Tastes lovely though, and has gone up heaps in price lately due to shortages, so I’m curious as to why it’s not grown here?

  2. FarmGeek said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    IR8 was achieved through cross breeding the old fashioned way and was the “low hanging fruit” in terms of early adaptations (2-3 x yield). There’s probably not too much we can do with yield per plant but increasing the survival rate of plants might be the next best thing in a changing environment.

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