Researchers Create New Superfood

Rice is one of the world’s most important crops. Three billion people depend on it as a staple every day, and a pound of rice offers four times the food energy of a pound of potatoes or a pound of pasta. That makes it even more important in the developing world as a source of calories. But climate change is wreaking havoc on rice production. The crop is highly dependent on water, and many traditional growing regions around the world are experiencing a drought cycle.

Just in time, researchers at the University of Arkansas have found a protein that controls the process by which rice plants convert sunlight into food, offering a new genetically modified plant that requires less water to produce even more rice.

The protein serves as a genetic master regulator by interacting with DNA sequences, in this case the ones that control photosynthesis

By studying stressed-out plants, the researchers noticed the protein slows down or shuts down photosynthesis in difficult conditions.

In the wild, that process may have an important role, but on a farm, it’s a disaster.

The scientists attempted to genetically modify a strain of rice so that the gene that controlled the protein production was more active. Such plants had more photosynthetic organelles in their cells, called chloroplasts, which made them greener. They produced more sugars, starches and biomass.

Researchers found the genetically modified rice strain grew better with less water yet retained more water internally.

The modified rice has more vigorous root systems under both drought and well-watered conditions, and it produces more grain. Under drought conditions, it yields 14–40% more grain. Under well-watered conditions, it increases yields as much as 29%.

By and large, I am not a fan of genetically modified foods, but I draw a fuzzy line between modifications that change things like protect a plant during draught and modifications that change things like adding a gene to create a pesticide within the plant. I believe that all genetically modified foods should receive extensive human testing before being released into the food supply, but they simply do not.

I wouldn’t eat things like corn chips or the like anyway, because they’re simply not a healthy food, but I’d especially not eat them because I know almost all of them contain genetically modified corn — even when the makers are trying to avoid it. The Europeans have it right banning genetically modified crops.

But decreasing the amount of water in a staple like rice seems like such a leap forward in potential food supply worth pursuing. I also can’t see a lot of difference between this type of genetic modification and hybridization, which often results in genetic changes. After all, for centuries, farmers have simply selected seeds that do better in draught.

Meanwhile, try not to eat anything that comes in a box or a can.

To a bright future,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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