An ambitious project that aims to increase rice yields could provide the solution to future food shortages.

About a billion people worldwide currently live on less than a dollar a day, and 850 million live in hunger

Dr Julian Hibberd
A worldwide consortium of experts that includes Dr Julian Hibberd in Cambridge University’s Department of Plant Sciences has been brought together to re-engineer rice in efforts to avoid future shortages of a cereal consumed by about half of the world’s population. This major scientific endeavour is under the leadership of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and is funded by an $11 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

‘About a billion people worldwide currently live on less than a dollar a day, and 850 million live in hunger,’ explained Dr Hibberd. ‘By 2050, the demands of increasing population growth and urbanisation are predicted to result in mass malnutrition. One way to alleviate this problem is to develop higher-yielding rice.’

In an innovative approach, the C4 Rice Consortium plans to reconfigure the photosynthetic pathway used by rice. Some plants are capable of converting the energy from sunlight into chemical energy more efficiently than others. This mechanism, known as C4photosynthesis because the carbon is fixed into four-carbon sugars rather than the usual three-carbon compound, can produce higher yields. The goal of the Consortium is to convert rice from a C3 to a C4 pathway.

Cambridge’s contribution is to unpick and rebuild the C4 apparatus at the molecular level. Dozens of genes are known to be involved, and alterations will be required in the biochemistry of photosynthesis, leaf anatomy and cell biology. The collective expertise of the Consortium will be required to construct and test the prototypes of a C4 rice plant. If the basic science is successful, the first varieties will be available 10–15 years later.

‘There is biological precedent for changing from a C3 to a C4 pathway in plants, since it’s known to have evolved independently many times,’ said Dr Hibberd. ‘The challenge is how to repeat the process in rice in the necessary time frame to avoid potential food shortages in the future.’

For more information, please contact Dr Julian Hibberd (julian.hibberd@plantsci.cam.ac.uk). Dr Hibberd was recently identified by Nature magazine as one of five ‘crop researchers who could change the world’.


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