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Genetically modified (GM) rice at IRRI

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    * www.irri.org, 16 November 2009 05:58
Currently no varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice are grown commercially in the world, although several have been approved for commercialization. Many organizations around the world, including the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), are using genetic modification as a research tool and in developing potential GM rice varieties.
IRRI’s guiding principles in researching GM rice

The International Rice Research Institute believes that genetic modification and genetically modified rice have the potential to safely deliver unique benefits to rice farmers and consumers that cannot be achieved through other breeding methods.

Many technologies and rice breeding techniques are needed to develop and deliver solutions to meet the challenges of food security, poverty, climate change, and resource availability that rice producers and consumers face. IRRI believes that responsible and ethical research and development of GM rice present another opportunity that should be explored to help meet these challenges.

IRRI conducts GM rice research where it helps us achieve our aims to

    * reduce poverty and hunger;
    * improve the health of rice farmers and consumers; and
    * ensure that rice production is environmentally sustainable.

In undertaking our GM rice research, we

    * Adhere to the national biosafety regulations pertaining to GM plants of the country within which we are operating, comply with all relevant international biosafety regulations, and uphold our own high internal biosafety standards.
    * Commit to researching both the advantages and disadvantages of any GM rice that we are developing, or GM rice research we are engaged in.
    * Ensure our GM rice research is scientifically rigorous and independently assessed.
    * Are open and transparent about the GM rice research we are doing, communicate our scientific findings accurately, and provide only scientifically sound information and advice on GM rice.
    * Recognize the diversity of opinion about GM rice and that concerns exist about its development and use.
    * Consult with and seek input from the people, communities, industries, and governments that have an interest in our GM rice research and use their views and ideas to help guide our GM rice research and development.
    * Respect intellectual property rights and ensure our research is lawful.

GM rice research at IRRI

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been developing new crop varieties. By selecting the best performing rice plants and using them to breed new rice varieties, rice farmers, and more recently rice breeders, have been changing the genetic composition of rice to generate new and improved rice varieties for thousands of years.

Breeding methods have been continually evolving, becoming more sophisticated and accurate at incorporating useful genes and traits into new crop varieties. Genetic modification is a modern breeding method that is used at IRRI to investigate and understand the diversity and function of rice genes and to develop and deliver GM rice varieties.
Genetic modification to understand gene function

Genetic modification is a valuable research tool that helps rice breeders understand gene function and identify genes of interest.

IRRI has discovered regions of DNA that help rice

    * tolerate early submergence, drought, heat, and salinity;
    * resist tungro, bacterial leaf blight, and blast disease; and
    * improve phosphorus-use efficiency.

IRRI is using genetic modification to help identify specific genes within these DNA regions that are responsible for these traits. Once specific genes associated with beneficial traits are identified, they can be more efficiently transferred into new rice varieties using other breeding methods.

Using genetic modification in this way can improve the accuracy of identifying genes of interest and speed up the breeding process, even though the end-product is not GM rice.

This approach has been successfully used to identify submergence tolerance genes. As a result, IRRI has recently released submergence-tolerant rice – non-GM rice that can tolerate and produce good yields after two weeks under water, conditions that would decimate most other rice.
Genetic modification to develop GM rice

Genetic modification is also used to actually develop GM rice. It greatly increases the accuracy of incorporating only the gene of interest, and its associated trait, into a new rice variety. Unlike conventional breeding, it can entirely prevent the inclusion of unwanted genes and associated traits.

Beyond this, the unique power of GM lies in its ability to incorporate novel genes with useful traits for rice, including genes from plants and organisms unrelated to rice, into new rice varieties that cannot be achieved using other breeding methods. This is possible because all genetic information is stored in DNA – which is the common building block of all plants and animals.

IRRI has not developed any GM rice varieties yet. However, we are researching the development and delivery of GM rice with improved

    * drought, heat, and salinity tolerance;
    * photosynthetic capacity to increase yield and enable it to become more efficient in using water and nitrogen fertilizer (C4 rice); and
    * nutritional value of the grain, including higher pro-vitamin A, improved protein quality, and higher iron.

Other breeding techniques
Marker-assisted breeding

Marker-assisted breeding is a breeding technique that also helps to more accurately breed new rice varieties and to do so in a shorter time frame.

In marker-assisted breeding, a gene or group of genes responsible for a favorable trait is identified using a DNA marker to "flag" its location. As in conventional breeding, two parent plants are still crossed, but this time scientists can do a quick DNA test on the progeny to see if the marker is present in the new plant. If it is, then the desired gene and its associated trait have been successfully passed on to the new generation. Plants not carrying the marker do not carry the gene of interest and are dropped, simplifying the job of the plant breeder. Marker-assisted breeding can also be used to minimize the number of unwanted genes in the new variety by ensuring that only the markers associated with the gene of interest are transferred.

Marker-assisted breeding is being increasingly and successfully employed at IRRI to develop new rice varieties. IRRI’s recently released submergence-tolerance rice is also an example of a rice variety developed using marker-assisted breeding.