The quest for better rice
Rice is the world's main food staple and depended upon by at least 2 billion people to meet their daily nutritional requirements. The European research project META-PHOR is investigating how to produce highly aromatic and nutritious rice. These “super-grains” will give a higher quality product for consumers and a larger export potential for producers.
An important partner in this project is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The IRRI has its headquarters in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where the average family consumes 50kg of rice each month. The scientists of the IRRI work to improve the availability of affordable, high quality rice.
Melissa Fitzgerald, a cereal chemist of the IRRI, is the project's local coordinator. One gene is already known to be responsible for the rice fragrance, but it is believed by Melissa Fitzgerald that there is also another aroma gene. Once this second gene has been identified, the two could then be combined to create an additive effect for super aromatic rice.
Chanthakhone Boulaphanh is a Ph.D. student in agronomy from Laos. She has crossed and now planted two Lao rice varieties that are both aromatic. The new species are expected to yield very aromatic grains and should even grow well in poorer soils. Once the small experimental crop has been harvested, its DNA will be studied and a breeding program could follow. The new rice species are achieved through cross-pollination; there is no genetic engineering involved in the project.
The IRRI has a refrigerated genebank containing tens of thousands of rice species. Melissa Fitzgerald is searching for the varieties that are most rich in micronutrients, to help develop varieties of superior nutritional content. Being examined is the distribution of minerals elements (such as iron, zinc or magnesium) in the various grains from different parts of the rice plant. It is then hoped to combine them with the highly aromatic rices.
After the planting and harvesting of the research crops, the collection of the genetic and chemical data from the grains can begin. This part of the process includes the extraction of DNA and the identifying of chemical compounds. Before being selected for experimenting, the grains are dried, cleaned and polished. The physical attributes of the selected grains are catalogued to help scientists find out which part of the grain is richer in nutrients, or whether its size and hardness of starch affects its aroma.
The selected grains are then sent to Wageningen in the Netherlands. Scientists of Wageningen UR Plant Research International are trying to improve the flavour and nutritional properties of experimental white rice from the Philippines to match those of brown rice. It is believed that compounds in brown rice are very beneficial for humans, helping with blood pressure, for instance.
The Meta-Phor Project coordinator, Robert Hall, hopes that the research will improve breeding strategies for rice production. The knowledge will be particularly useful to growers in developing countries.