In 2006, geneticists at the University of California, Riverside made a discovery that helped develop flood-tolerant rice, benefiting rice farmers in flood-prone countries. The lab of Julia Bailey-Serres, a professor of genetics, was involved in the identification of SUB1A, a gene that enables rice to survive complete submergence. SUB1A is not present in all rice plants, so through breeding it can be introduced in a rice variety that is normally intolerant of submergence.
The team led by Bailey-Serres has focused on discovering how SUB1A works to protect a rice plant during and after a flood event.
That breakthrough led, eventually, to Swarna-Sub1, a flood-tolerant rice variety developed by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Swarna, a popular rice variety in India, was upgraded with the gene for flood tolerance to make Swarna-Sub1. IRRI has just reported that more than 10 million farmers today have and grow Sub1 rice in their flood-prone fields.
Now the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will fund the third phase of a project, led by IRRI, whose goal is to produce stress-tolerant rice for Africa and South Asia. Initiated in 2007, the project received $20 million each for the first two phases from the foundation. The project will now receive $32.77 million for five more years.
“The impact of Sub1 rice is way beyond any expectation that I ever dreamed,” said Bailey-Serres. “In addition to the extension of Sub1 rice to farmers, my research group and a few others continue to work to determine just how the SUB1A gene does its job to protect rice from floods. We are also asking if the SUB1A gene can benefit the farmer when the environmental stress is something other than a monsoon flood. In addition to submergence and submergence recovery, we are studying at the molecular level situations like drought, salinity and high iron.”