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UK-Vietnam collaboration to improve world’s most important staple food

22 March 2011

Today (22 March) the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) announces the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on rice genomics research with the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in Vietnam. This heralds the start of a major effort to improve flood, drought, salt and pest tolerance in the world's most important staple food in the face of a changing climate and growing population.

Funds of up to £350K are being made available by BBSRC (up to £250K) and MOST (up to £100K) for a project to sequence the genomes of 30 rice varieties that have been selected for high quality and yield potential, tolerance to submergence, salinity, drought and resistance to pests and diseases, and to transfer this knowledge into new rice varieties. These new rice sequences will form the basis of an important and novel genomics platform that can be used by plant breeders to breed rice varieties with improved traits. The genomics platform will be developed at the John Innes Centre and The Genome Analysis Centre (both institutes of BBSRC) and used to enhance rice breeding at a number of Vietnamese institutions including the newly redeveloped Agricultural Genetics Institute.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said "Rice is the staple food of around half the world's population, so as the world's population grows, so too must its supply of rice. With this relatively modest investment we have the potential to make a very big difference - it could lead to the development of new rice varieties able to cope with even more demanding climate conditions and sustain future population growth.

"This collaboration makes the most of the world-class research centres we have in the UK and shows that working together and sharing the latest science and innovation can have global benefits."

The challenges from climate change to rice production are very significant. Much of the rice eaten globally is grown in low lying or delta regions in countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. These are at very high risk of inundation by seawater as sea levels rise, presenting the need for rice varieties that are more tolerant of both submergence and high salt levels. In other regions, drought is becoming more problematic as temperatures rise.

Professor Janet Allen, Director of Research, BBSRC said "We must not underestimate the importance of rice, globally. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 so, in very crude terms, if half the people in the world are eating rice as a staple then yields will have to increase by enough to feed an extra billion people by 2050. That's an awful lot of rice! Current trends in yield increase, combined with the threats arising from climate change, means that without research into new varieties we are facing the threat of a serious food security crisis."

"In the UK we have world-class skills and resources already established, such as The Genome Analysis Centre and the John Innes Centre, to do this research. These are complementary to the unrivalled collection of rice varieties available in Vietnam and their growing number of genomics researchers and burgeoning infrastructure in this area. This is a tremendously exciting opportunity to work with Vietnam as our partner of choice in rice genomics research and to support the development of the global crop genomics community through partnership and training."

It's not just research to improve rice that will benefit from this project. Rice has a relatively small and simple genome, making it easier to sequence and make sense of than wheat. In the UK wheat is the most important staple and it is expected that there may be equivalent genes in wheat to those found to confer useful or desirable traits in rice. Results from the project are expected to be published in international journals and data will be shared through the European Bioinformatics Institute and also added to the Ensemblplants section of the Ensembl Genomes database and other freely accessible databases, as appropriate.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Rice facts:

  • Rice provides 20 percent of the world's dietary energy supply
  • Rice is also a good source of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and dietary fibre
  • Rice is the predominant staple food for 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific, nine countries in North and South America and eight countries in Africa
  • In 2008 China produced USD 36.5Bn worth of rice
  • In Vietnam, almost 70% of dietary energy comes from cereals, mainly rice, as opposed to 25% in the UK
  • Almost 20% of Vietnamese GDP comes from agriculture, over 40% of which comes from growing rice

Sources:  www.fao.org/rice2004/en/f-sheet/factsheet3.pdf and http://faostat.fao.org/site/339/default.aspx

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.