The first genome-scale model for predicting the functions of genes and gene networks in a grass species has been developed by an international team of researchers that includes a UC Davis rice geneticist.

The new systems-level model of rice gene interactions, called RiceNet, is expected to help speed the development of new crops for the production of advanced biofuels, as well as help boost the production and improve the quality of one of the world’s most important food staples.

“With RiceNet, instead of working on one gene at a time based on data from a single experimental set, we can predict the function of entire networks of genes, as well as entire genetic pathways that regulate a particular biological process,” says Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology and director of the grass genetics program within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute.

Ronald is the corresponding author of a paper on the new systems biology approach published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper describes how Ronald and other Joint BioEnergy Institute scientists worked with researchers at the University of Texas in Austin and Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, to overcome challenges and develop a network that encompasses nearly half of all rice genes. The paper is titled “Genetic dissection of the biotic stress response using a genome-scale gene network for rice.”

Rice is a staple food for half of the world’s population and a research model for monocotyledonous species — one of the two major groups of flowering plants. Rice is especially useful as a model for the perennial grasses, such as Miscanthus and switchgrass, which have emerged as prime feedstock candidates for the production of clean, green and renewable cellulosic biofuels.

For decades, UC Davis has helped overcome agricultural and environmental challenges related to rice production in the United States and around the world. Today, campus researchers are using molecular biology to better understand how to improve the hardiness and yield of this grain, which plays such an important role in global nutrition and food security.