Rice is the world’s most important food crop, the source of 1/5 of our planet’s total caloric intake. Many of us rely on this humble, delicious grain, not only for wow factor in dishes like risotto, nasi goreng, or jollof rice but for survival. That’s why this recent news from the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis may be a game-changer for future rice crops and the people who love them. They’ve used the gene modification tool CRISPR to strike a blow against rice blast—an infection so insidious it routinely destroys 10% – 30% of the annual global crop, gaining it the epithet “cancer of rice.”
Rice blast causes patches of dead cells to appear on a rice plant. If left untreated (by extensive and pricey pesticide application), the dead patches expand until the whole plant—and a good chunk of the total crop—gives up the ghost. But the research team has come up with a cinematically named CRISPR intervention (“lesion mimic mutants”) that just might do the trick.
“These genetic mutations cause plants to display the same patches of dead cells present during an infection, despite the plant being infection-free. As a result, their immune systems swing into action, killing the cells around the lesions to prevent the ‘infection’ from spreading. […]
Plants with the natural mutation were small and didn’t yield much rice, but the researchers were able to identify the mutant gene, which they call RBL1 (resistance to blast1).
Using CRISPR and other techniques, they’ve now created a line of rice plants with a version of the RBL1 mutation that makes them resistant to three bacterial and fungal infections — including rice blast — while also producing good yields.”
The researchers are encouraged by the results, and are looking forward to trying the process out with tastier and more common rice strains. (This first stage was accomplished with fast-growing rice not typically consumed by humans.) Once again, gene editing comes through with a low-cost and -impact solution to a big problem. As a wise man once said, “Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something;” if this genetic modification preserves our ability to do precisely that, greater food security is not far behind!