A new type of rice, which gives off close to zero greenhouse emissions during its growth, was recently recognized with the top prize for 2015 in the engineering category of Popular Science magazine’s “Best of What’s New” awards.
The new-and-improved rice, developed by a team of scientists from three continents, grows in a manner that nearly eliminates the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than its better-known counterpart – carbon dioxide.
It is estimated that 8 to 15 percent of global methane emissions come from rice paddies around the world, making the team’s contribution especially important for climate issues.
First, the team identified a gene in barley that controls the way it uses carbon pulled from the atmosphere. As they spliced the gene into common rice, this resulted in more carbon being sent to the plant’s grain and stem, and much less into its roots.
The change increases the amount of starch and the yield of rice, and reduces the carbon available to the roots, where bacteria convert much of it into methane.
“This is a win-win finding,” said Christer Jansson, plant biochemist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and lead author on the paper. “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 new, eco-friendly strain of the world’s most important crop, which provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans worldwide, was first presented in a research paper in July’s edition of the journal Nature, which Jansson published together with colleagues from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, China’s Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Hunan Agricultural University.
Much of Jansson’s work focuses on understanding how plants absorb light and tap water and carbon to carry out photosynthesis, which is of great consequence to scientists investigating bioenergy (renewable energy derived from biological source). So far, Jansson has worked with crops like sorghum, rice and tobacco to discover new ways to create plants that offer novel energy traits.
Scientists around the world have been working on developing rice strains that would be able to adapt to changing climatic conditions, but this is one of the first designed to help curtail climate change itself.