New research project aims to catalyse a rice revolution that will benefit low-income farmers and save water

  • 17
  • OCT
  • 2019

Rothamsted is to lead a consortium awarded a total of £600K to develop new rice varieties that can be grown with less water than conventional puddled transplanted rice.

Also involving the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines, and Punjab Agricultural University, India, the UKRI-funded project will use cutting edge plant breeding technologies, field trials and an image based system for measuring traits to accelerate the development of new rice plants.

Rice farming is heavily reliant on ready supplies of water and labour. Climate change and urbanisation, however, threaten traditional paddy cultivation. In many parts of Asia farmers are switching to direct seeded rice (DSR) as a more sustainable alternative. This is grown in dry fields, so uses less water and requires less work. It also cuts out the greenhouse gases that bacteria in paddy fields produce.

But for DSR to be successful, seeds need to germinate quickly and grow vigorously. Current varieties are not best suited to this.

Rothamsted Research, in collaboration with the project partners aims to generate new high-yielding "DSR adapted" rice varieties. Using the latest genetic technologies, new varieties will be rapidly developed and their performance in the field evaluated before being released to farmers.

Project lead Dr Smita Kurup said: “We have already identified in the lab hitherto 'unknown' varieties more suitable to DSR in terms of their seedling traits by screening several hundred varieties from the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. As a next step, we want to use these lines to combine with current good yielding and disease resistant rice cultivars to generate new high-yielding "DSR adapted" rice varieties.

“Once we develop these, we will evaluate their field performance at multiple locations. Finally, the most promising breeding lines will be nominated for trails in Asia before releasing to farmers.”

The team at Rothamsted have developed a large-scale, high resolution image-based system to tease out useful traits, along with a ground-breaking approach that allows them to make time-lapse images of germinating rice seeds in the dark – exactly the conditions that a seed would experience when buried in the ground. This enables the researchers to speedily identify the seeds that germinate well and pin down the exact traits that can be incorporated into new varieties.

The project is one of 18 that have been funded as part of UKRI’s GCRF Innovation and Commercialisation Programme, developed to fast track promising research findings into real-world solutions.

UKRI Director of International Development, Professor Helen Fletcher, said: “This is a really exciting opportunity to fund projects through the Global Research Translation awards. Each and every one will make a massive difference to peoples’ lives in communities spread across the world to ensure some of the most challenged communities have a brighter future.

“Over the next year and a half, UK researchers will work with their international counterparts, policy makers, businesses and local organisations to turn promising research into solutions that can be taken forward through various pathways such as spin-out companies and social enterprises to make a positive difference to people who live with the reality of challenges such as climate change, poor sanitation and disease every day.”

Rothamsted Research Director Achim Doberman added: “I am delighted to see this new project move forward. Rice is the most important staple crop for people in low and lower-middle-income countries, but current cultivation techniques will not be sustainable under a changing climate. Only by accelerating our research into new varieties can we hope to secure sustainable supplies and guarantee a prosperous future for millions of low-income famers.”

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes

About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.