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Wonder rice gene discovered, may boost rice yields by a third

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NEW DELHI: Scientists have discovered a wonder gene that could dramatically increase yields of rice, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) said Tuesday. Rice is the world's most widely consumed staples with global production in 2012-13 estimated at a record 490 million tonnes.

"Our work showed that SPIKE is indeed one of the major genes responsible for the yield increase that breeders have spent so many years searching for," IRRI genetic transformation laboratory chief Inez Slamet-Loedin said in a statement.

IRRI spokeswoman Gladys Ebron said the transfer did not involve genetical modification of the crop, a controversial issue in food production. "It's just conventional breeding," she added.

Preliminary tests show that yields can rise by 13-36 percent when infused with the so-called SPIKE gene, the Philippines-based institute said. Although the gene was first discovered in the 'japonica' variety of rice, tests are underway to introduce it in the modern long-grain "indica" rice varieties, the world's most widely grown types of rice.

Tropical japonica rice is mainly grown in East Asia and accounts for just 10 percent of global rice production. The rest is 'indica' variety. India, the world's second largest producer of rice after China mostly cultivates the indica variety.

"We discovered the gene, SPIKE, in an Indonesian tropical japonica rice variety," announced rice breeder Dr. Nobuya Kobayashi of the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization-Institute of Crop Science in Japan. Dr. Kobayashi is a former IRRI scientist seconded from the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS).

Testing of new rice varieties infused with the gene is under way across several developing countries in Asia, said rice breeder Tsutomu Ishimaru, head of the IRRI-led SPIKE breeding programme.

"We believe that these will contribute to food security in these areas once the new varieties are released," Ishimaru said.

There is no definite timetable for when the rice containing the SPIKE gene will be distributed to farmers, according Ebron.

To keep rice prices stable and affordable at about $300 a tonne, the institute estimates production needs to increase by 8-10 million tonnes every year. Asia accounts for about 90 percent of global rice production, it added.

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