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This New Climate-Friendly Rice Has Been Named One of 2015's Top Scientific Developments

Virtually no greenhouse gas emissions and a higher yield.

DAVID NIELD
28 DEC 2015

Just as climate change threatens to affect the way we live in the future, our choices can also contribute to global warming, including what we decide to eat on a daily basis. So scientists are developing a new environmentally friendly rice variety that's now been recognised as one of the most important breakthroughs of the year.

 

The genetically modified SUSIBA2 rice gives off virtually no greenhouse gas emissions while growing, and has been developed by a team of scientists spread across three continents.

Key to the new growing process is the elimination of methane production: it's one of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse gas effect, and 7 to 17 percent of total methane emissions are estimated to come from the rice paddies of the world. If that percentage can be significantly reduced, the impact could be huge - methane is around 20 times more effective at trapping heat in Earth's atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Scientists from the US Department of Energy and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences identified a barley gene that controls how the plant produces carbon, and then figured out how to splice that gene into rice. This process altered the way the rice uses carbon pulled in from the atmosphere, sending more of it into the grain and stems and less into the roots.

As a result, the amount of starch and the yield of the rice increased, and less carbon is made available to the roots - carbon that's ultimately converted to methane and is now used by bacteria instead.

"This is a win-win finding," said Christer Jansson from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, part of the US Department of Energy. "The process results in reduced methane emissions, which helps to mitigate climate change, and also results in more biomass - more food. This dual effect is very positive."

The research, which was published earlier this year in Nature, has been awarded the Grand Award in Popular Science's Best Of What's New 2015 contest.

Our love of rice isn't going to go away anytime soon, with more than half the world's population incorporating it as part of their regular diet. After promising field tests that were run in China, the researchers now want to see how their genetically modified rice responds to cultivation. For now, there's no estimate on when it might become commercially available.