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Japanese scientists help discover wonder rice gene

AFP-JIJI

Scientists have discovered a wonder rice gene that could dramatically increase yields of one of the world’s most important food crops, the International Rice Research Institute said.

Preliminary tests show that yields of modern long-grain Indica rice varieties, the world’s most widely grown types of rice, can rise by 13 to 36 percent when infused with the so-called SPIKE gene, the Philippines-based institute said Tuesday.

“Our work showed that SPIKE is indeed one of the major genes responsible for the yield increase that breeders have spent so many years searching for,” IRRI genetic transformation laboratory chief Inez Slamet-Loedin said in a statement.

The SPIKE gene was discovered by Japanese breeder Nobuya Kobayashi following long-running research starting in 1989 on a tropical Japonica rice variety that is grown in Indonesia, IRRI spokeswoman Gladys Ebron said.

Testing of new rice varieties infused with the gene is under way across several developing countries in Asia, said Tsutomu Ishimaru, head of the IRRI-led SPIKE breeding program.

“We believe that these will contribute to food security in these areas once the new varieties are released,” Ishimaru said.

But there is no definitive timetable for when the rice containing the SPIKE gene will be distributed to farmers, Ebron said.

After its discovery, breeders from IRRI, a nonprofit research group established in the 1960s, have worked to incorporate the gene into Indica varieties that are widely used in major rice-growing areas of Asia.

Ebron said the transfer did not involve genetical modification of the crop, a controversial issue in food production.

“It’s just conventional breeding,” she said.