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Scientists Are Editing Rice Genes To Make Them Produce More

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Scientists have created the perfect rice plant that is not only slightly more vulnerable to environmental factors but able to produce up to 31 percent more grain. Ethical questions on gene editing remain, however.  ( Tongpradit Charoenphon | Pixabay )

In yet another example of agriculture and advanced engineering fusing together, scientists may have just found the answer to ramping up rice production: gene editing.

A group of scientists from Purdue University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences has used CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology to create different kinds of rice variants that are able to produce 25 to 31 percent more grain than traditional rice plants, all of which would have been virtually impossible to produce via typical breeding procedures.

Jian-Kang Zhu, a professor at Purdue University, led the team that created mutations to 13 genes related to the phytohormone abscisic acid, which is known to play a key role in terms of plant stress tolerance and growth suppression.

One of the varieties they created is a rice plant that gained minimal changes in terms of stress tolerance. Interestingly, however, it made 25 percent more grain during a field test in Shanghai and 31 percent more in a field test on the Hainan Island.

The trick is to silence genes that improve certain tolerances but suppress growth. On paper, this procedure sounds counterintuitive because it will potentially make the plants more vulnerable.

However, Engadget notes that plants often have genetic redundancies. The researchers simply used this duplication to its advantage and made sure they provided all the benefits and none of the drawbacks.

The findings were published May 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Silencing Genes In Rice Plants

The team essentially created the perfect combination: a rice plant that has just enough gene redundancies to yield ample stress tolerance properties but isn't growth-inhibited.

Such a plant is able to produce grain without succumbing to natural disasters including drought, soil salinity, and other environmental factors.

Only Possible With Gene Editing

CRISPR/Cas9 technology allowed the scientists to cut out parts of a DNA sequence, essentially editing the code to make genetic adjustments. It also allowed them to modify multiple genes simultaneously, a process that would have taken decades to finish using conventional breeding procedures

However, with no guarantee, the resulting rice plants would gain the perfect combination of desirable characteristics.

"It would have taken millions of plants. Basically, it's not feasible," said Ray A. Bressan, who is also a professor at Purdue University. "This is a real accomplishment that could not have been done without CRISPR."

Impressive as the experiment's results might sound, the CRISPR technique still isn't ready to be officially implemented into the field just yet. Moving forward, researchers would also have to determine how gene editing affects elite rice variants. If proven to be successful, however, this technique could be a boon for countries where rice shortages are common.

Plus, agriculture companies would have to overcome ethical fears raised by gene editing. In the present, some are already concerned about the implications of consuming genetically modified rice, questioning its value and who should be given the power to control it.

It's most likely that producers would have to ensure CRISPR-edited rice is both safe to consume and accessible before introducing it to the industry.

What do you think? Should rice be genetically edited? As always, if you have anything to share, feel free to sound them off in the comments section below.

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