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UC Riverside rice geneticist receives high honor from US Department of Agriculture

RIVERSIDE, Calif. For their landmark research leading to the development of flood-tolerant rice that can benefit farmers in flood-prone areas worldwide, Julia Bailey-Serres of UC Riverside, Pamela Ronald of UC Davis and David Mackill of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines will be honored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with the 2008 USDA National Research Initiative Discovery Award.

The three scientists are, or have been, principle investigators on grants the USDA has awarded them for rice research. Their research achievements will be celebrated at a ceremony at UC Riverside from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 5, in Rooms 205/206, Engineering II.

Bailey-Serres, a professor of genetics in the Center for Plant Cell Biology and the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, is the lead recipient of the USDA award. She has been the principle investigator on three USDA-funded projects that led to the identification and characterization of genes in rice that are responsible for flood tolerance. Two postdoctoral researchers, Kenong Xu (UC Davis) and Takeshi Fukao (UC Riverside), contributed largely to the research as well.

Gale A. Buchanan, the undersecretary for research education and economics at USDA, and Colien Hefferan, an administrator for the Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service, will present the awards to Bailey-Serres and her colleagues.

Bailey-Serres and her collaborators have focused in particular on Sub1A, a gene responsible for flood tolerance and found only in some low-yielding rice varieties in India and Sri Lanka.

The characterization of the Sub1 trait in labs at UC Riverside and UC Davis has enabled researchers at the International Rice Research Institute to use sophisticated breeding technology to precisely transfer Sub1A into popular high-yielding rice varieties of countries in South and Southeast Asia, adding a much desired trait in these varieties: recovery after prolonged submergence.

The new rice varieties, which are already popular because of their pest- and disease-resistance and excellent grain quality, recently passed field tests in Bangladesh and India, and will be made available within two years to smallholder farmers in flood-prone areas in those countries.

"Prof. Bailey-Serres is the latest in a long line of eminent UC Riverside plant scientists," said Thomas O. Baldwin, the dean of UCR's College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. "Since the beginnings of the university with the founding of the Citrus Experiment Station, what has distinguished our researchers is their rigorous knowledge of the very newest science coupled with a determination to use that science on everyday human problems."

The USDA funding of the Rice Sub1 Project began in the mid-1990s with two grants to Ronald and Mackill totaling nearly $490,000. Subsequently, three other USDA grants were awarded to Bailey-Serres, Ronald and Cynthia Larive, a professor of chemistry at UCR, bringing the grand total of USDA funding to the research team to nearly $1.45 million.

"The Sub1 project provides an excellent example of a productive research collaboration between a breeder and two molecular geneticists," Bailey-Serres said. "Each of the groups brought distinct expertise to the project.

"Dave Mackill recognized rice plants with exceptional submergence tolerance and sought the rice chromosome and region that carried the trait. Pamela Ronald had experience in fine mapping chromosome regions and hunting down genes using plant transformation technology. Takeshi Fukao and I provided expertise on flooding biology and gene regulation that led to the realization that the submergence tolerant trait includes a cluster of related genes."

For Bailey-Serres and Ronald, observing the robustness of the new submergence tolerant rice in farmers' fields in Bangladesh and India in November 2008 was an extraordinary experience. A farmer's wife told them she was very happy to see the new rice growing even though the plants had been underwater for 15 days.

"She and the other women of the family would not have to replant the field," Bailey-Serres said. "There would be rice now when otherwise there may have been none."


Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California - Riverside

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