Mutant rice could help Japanese farmers bounce back from tsunami damage

Japan is still struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that hit the country last March. One of the long-term problems is reclaiming farmland ravaged by the tsunami. And mutant rice might be the solution.

The tsunami deposited huge quantities of saltwater over the agricultural land of northeast Japan. All that saltwater has severely damaged the otherwise arable land, making it difficult for farmers to grow rice in the affected areas. Typically, the recovery time for an agricultural disaster like this would be about ten years, as farmers would need to develop entirely new strains of crops that could handle growing in the salt-drenched land.

Now, thanks to some specially mutated rice, researchers in Japan and the United Kingdom can cut the waiting time down from ten years to just two. They have already identified seven salt-tolerant strains, and these simply have to be crossbred with the original rice strains to create usable crops. This wouldn't have been possible without the recent advances in our understanding of gene sequencing and genomics. Brande Wulff of the UK's Sainsbury Laboratory explained their breakthrough to BBC News:

"This is a huge leap forward. Advances in technology allow us to sequence plant genomes and identify gene variants that give rise to desirable traits. Our colleagues in Japan have already identified mutants that are more salt-resistant. Now it's just a matter for them to back-cross those mutants to the parental variety and clean up the background - get rid of the bad mutations and keep the good one - and then bulk up the seed provided to the farmers."

Previously, it's been difficult to artificially select for specific crop traits because each characteristic is the result of a whole variety of genes. Each set of genes has only a small effect, and figuring out the best way to combine them to create stronger crops has proven difficult. But genome sequencing allows the researchers to have far more precise control of the process, monitoring the changes to the different strains on almost a gene-by-gene basis. And that breakthrough could prove crucial in helping Japanese agriculture recover from a terrible natural disaster.

Original paper at Nature Biotechnology via BBC News. Image by bo47 on Flickr.