U of A Leads International Team In Sequencing African Rice Genome

August 04, 2014

(Courtesy of International Rice Research Institute)
An African Rice field.
(Courtesy of Judith Carney)
Hawa Sanneh holding freshly harvested African rice in Casamance, Senegal, in October 1987.

Rice is not known to grow in Arizona, but a research team based in Tucson has cleared a huge hurdle to help make the food more accessible across the world.

An international research team led by the University of Arizona successfully mapped the genome sequence of African Rice, known for hardiness and drought resistance. The genome, or chemical DNA sequence, determines every characteristic of the rice species.

Rod Wing, Ph.D, Director of the Arizona Genomics Institute at U of A describes the sequencing process started in 2003.

“There are four bases, A, C, T, G and then what we do is that the rice genome has 350 million of these four letters and we essentially sequence them one base at a time. But, we do that in 150,000 chunks and we do that over and over and over again," Wing said.

The hope is to cross-breed African rice with Asian rice, which was sequenced in 2005 and known for high yields. By selecting desirable traits from each species, researchers intend to cross-breed the strands to produce a crop that can flourish in areas hard hit by climate change. It also might help answer what they call the “Nine Billion People” question, or how will nine billion people stay fed, many of who are in areas of food scarcity.

The next research step will be testing the nearly 2,000 rice successions, or “races” of African Rice, in various areas affected by climate change. 

“Then you would plant them out in a whole variety of environments and conditions," Wing said. "Like under salty conditions, under high heat, under flooding conditions.”

From there, the successions that grow the best would be identified for further research.