Oregon State University aims to create rice with higher levels of vitamin B1 to make it more nutritious and at the same time, resistant to two crop-damaging diseases.
If the efforts are successful, it could mean higher yields for rice producers and a reduced use of pesticides.
Research shows vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, can boost the immune system of plants, including rice, cucumbers and tobacco. OSU's researchers are hoping that sustained accumulation of thiamine can make rice immune to bacterial leaf blight and rice blast, which cause significant yield losses in Southeast Asia, the world's top rice-growing region.
"Literature suggests that if we boost vitamin B1 we may be able to enhance resistance to diseases most harmful to rice," said Aymeric Goyer, a plant biologist with the OSU Extension Service.
At OSU's Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Goyer will grow rice that over-expresses genes that synthesize vitamin B1. Within 10 to 12 months, he'll see if the leaves contain higher-than-normal amounts of vitamin B1 and if the plants resist diseases.
Goyer will also see if the rice grain itself contains more thiamine, which is present only in low amounts in white rice.
In areas of the world where white rice is the cornerstone of most diets, thiamine deficiencies are common. Thiamine helps create acids for digestion, supports carbohydrate metabolism and is essential for the overall health of the nervous system.
"We have the potential to make more nutritious rice while helping improve yields and find an alternative to pesticides," said Goyer.
The research is funded by Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Pamela Ronald from the University of California, Davis is a collaborator with Goyer on the grant.