LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The University of Arkansas’ Division of Agriculture will lead a four-year, $5 million, multi-state research project focused on providing American farmers with tougher, high-yielding, disease-resistant rice varieties.

Announced by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the grant is being provided through the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. The multidisciplinary team assembled to work the project – titled “RiceCAP” – includes 11 laboratories and 14 institutions.

"The final product of this grant should lead to development of improved U.S. rice cultivars and the building of a community of researchers trained in the application of new genomics-based tools to address the issue of quantitative inheritance in rice," said Joseph J. Jen, USDA undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics.

The RiceCAP project leader, Jim Correll, is a plant pathologist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. His colleague on the project, Neil Rutger, director at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Ark., will head the project’s executive committee. Both men spoke with Delta Farm Press shortly after the grant was announced. Among their comments:

On the project setup…

“One of the big reasons USDA supports this is there has already been efforts underway to sequence the rice genome,” says Correll. “Now, what we hope is that RiceCAP will use what’s been found thus far to springboard us to improving U.S. rice varieties.

“This is a unique USDA project, actually. They haven’t really approached a coordinated effort like this before. It’s already unique and has the potential to be extremely productive. This is exciting.”

“I’ve been involved in this from Day One,” says Rutger. “This is a program to apply new genomic discoveries to rice improvement for the Unites States. It will bridge the gap between many genomics laboratories, some in non-traditional rice states like Kansas, Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, we in the traditional rice states – Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas – have the rice breeding experience. There will be a total of 15 cooperators doing their best to integrate the genomic technology with the real world that farmers face daily.

“The project actually began Jan. 1 when the funds were released. There will be post-doctoral scientists hired in labs. All of this work will lead to a major reporting session next August in Stuttgart in conjunction with the annual field day at the Rice Research and Extension Center.

“Our main thrust at the Bumpers Center will be sheath blight resistance. Yu Lin Jia, a molecular plant pathologist, is developing ways to improve screening for the disease here. Right across the street at the Rice Research Station, (rice breeder) Karen Moldenhauer is doing a great work with inheritance studies used in the molecular techniques.”

On the first of two goals…

“For this, we’ve chosen two characters to work on – two characters that have been intractable in dealing with through conventional breeding,” says Rutger. “One is sheath blight, a fungal disease of rice that can be quite devastating. The only control now is a fungicide spray. The ideal control would be a genetic solution – something we’ll be searching for.

“The problem is this disease is complex. This means we need to apply the new molecular tools to identify the target genes in the genome. We can gather these up and produce disease-resistant rice. This is called ‘marker assistant selection.’

“In genomics studies, there are markers associated with genes for disease resistance. You can gather those up in the lab and, ultimately, put them into a single variety. Some term this ‘pyramiding.’

“I don’t think we’ll have a sheath blight resistant variety at the end of four years. But we will have made significant progress in achieving that aim. Hopefully what we discover in our studies points to solutions for problems we’re not even looking at.”

On the second goal…

“Milling yield is another target for our research,” says Rutger. “We’ve gone about as far as we can to get whole-grain milling yields through conventional breeding methods. The industry usually reports head rice yields of 58 to 60 percent. In experimental fields, we can get 65 percent pretty routinely. But we haven’t gone beyond that.

“Ideally, farmers want it all. I mean, start with 100 pounds of rice. Of that, 20 pounds is hulls, 10 pounds is bran, and you’re left with 70 pounds of white rice. We want all 70 of those pounds to be head rice.

“U.S. rice has the reputation for being the highest quality in the world. One of the ways to protect that reputation is to improve milling yields.”

‘Proof of concept’ and oversight…

“If we can use these technologies to address the two particular traits, it will also provide what’s often referred to as a ‘proof of concept’ – the proof that it can be done,” says Correll. “Once that proof exists, the technology can be further expanded look at many other rice attributes.

“I want to make sure people understand the project has three distinct components: research, education and also an outreach/Extension component. Rick Cartwright, Arkansas Extension plant pathologist, is heading an outreach team. That team is tasked with communicating the merits and utility of this approach for improving U.S. rice varieties.

“There are also two boards to watch over this project. In addition to a scientific oversight board there’s also a stakeholder board to provide guidance in a direct way. They’ll bring in the concerns of the U.S. rice industry – and they already have. The issues we’ll be looking at – sheath blight resistance and milling – are not academic concerns only. These things directly affect farmers on a yearly basis. If we find answers for them, everyone will benefit.”

On RiceCAP’s genesis…

“The grant was advertised when (CSREES) published a request for proposals,” says Rutger. “That appeared in mid-November of 2003 and we all saw it and began pursuing it.

“In the beginning, there were two groups (vying for the grant): those in the field and those in the lab. Then, everyone was told the money would be a package deal – USDA wouldn’t be funding separate grants. That forced both groups to work together.

“We had a large meeting about a year ago and began formulating how we could put all our parts into a cohesive whole that pointed us toward a common goal. I believe we’ve accomplished that.”

Will there be a central warehouse to compile collected data?

“Yes,” says Correll. “That’s the whole purpose of the RiceCAP Website (www.uark.edu/ua/ricecap/index.htm). The site is somewhat bare now, since the project science hasn’t begun. But that will change as tests are made and data collected. The site will be chock-full of interaction between participants. I encourage anyone interested in our progress to visit the site often.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com