Understanding a Little More About Biotechnology
Those of you in the rice industry who remember what rice was like before the current short varieties can attest to the differences in appearance and yield. Our crops continue to change through human intervention as they have in previous generations. Farmers have long selected the best producing plant material to propagate the next generation. More recently, crosses of plants having different desirable characteristics were made in order to develop rice varieties with a combination of traits. The latest change comes from the area of biotechnology.
The Role of Breeding
Traditionally, our breeders have gone through a process of selecting the appropriate parent plants, crossing the parents, and screening the resulting offspring. This process is repeated again and again until the desired characteristics are stable and consistent. The Rice Experiment Station (RES) breeders have developed methods to increase their chances of success in this process. Crosses will result in both desirable and undesirable results, necessitating observing thousands of offspring for the right combinations. This is true because of the amount of genetic information contained in a plant genome (the complete DNA coding for the plant). An example is given that if each of the chemical units in a plant were represented by an alphabetic letter, it would require 1700 books of 1000 pages to represent the genetic information of the plant. This is a stack of books as tall as a 20-story building. When a breeder mixes two 20-story stacks of information in a plant cross, he can never predict the result! Even so, as you can see by another article in this newsletter, the result of the breeder's work has been a wealth of new and useful varieties for the industry.
The main problem in this process is that the breeder must mix so much information together. What if we could be more selective? Now we introduce biotechnology, a process of intervening in the genetic exchange (a practice widely used by humans and bees), but with molecular precision. Today we can insert a single gene or short gene sequence into a particular location in the 20-story stack (similar to replacing a single page) instead of mixing up two huge 1,700,000 page stacks, throwing away half the pages and reassembling a single modified stack. In rice the most prominent example is herbicide resistant varieties. Here you take a variety of rice and add the gene that imparts herbicide resistance. This insertion will produce a plant that will still need some selection, but will largely retain the character of the parent. The time required to obtain the desired trait can be significantly shortened or even made possible if the trait is not found in a related species.
Unfortunately, this sort of molecular precision only goes so far. The methods used to place the desired gene into the stack of information still gives unexpected results. Guess who refines the genetically modified plant - the traditional breeder. It is still an essential part of the biotech process to have the breeder select the best material and weed out the undesirable traits, to test the material under varying growing conditions and verify that it will stay true to type.
Where Things Are Headed
Even though the current weed control improvements sound great, it is important that you think beyond herbicide resistance for biotechnology. The impact of this technology on various crops will be wide ranging over time and reach into areas such as fungal and bacterial resistance (blast), viral resistance (Cucumber Mosaic Virus), insect resistance (RWW), environmental protection (high salt conditions), and food and processing quality. Herbicide resistance will likely open the door for many other introduced characteristics that farmers will find valuable. How we set the stage with this first characteristic will likely determine the procedure for future improvements and the necessary relationships to carry them out.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you think about biotech. This technology holds great promise for future improvements in your ability to grow rice. There are many pitfalls along the way that the leaders of the rice industry are trying to avoid. Agronomic characteristics can not yet be selected or improved through biotech. Therefore, the importance of a strong breeding program producing rice varieties that can serve as a basis for further genetic improvement should not be underestimated. These varieties will be useful to the industry whether the technology arrives next year or in 20 years.
Weed Herbicide Fund Expense
Several years ago the RRB decided to fund a permanent position at UCD for weed control work. By funding this position, the rice industry was assured of having someone to work on weed problems in rice. Last year this position was filled by Dr. Albert Fischer who has been working hard on herbicide resistant weeds. Because of the large number of weed types and the various herbicide combinations, there is a need for more space, especially in the winter months.
This weed work space crunch and the need for blast research prompted the RES to examine the possibility of placing a greenhouse on their grounds. Careful study of other Sacramento Valley greenhouses and consultation with UC has resulted in a design that holds down cost and produces the needed space. It will not be a cheap facility, but it will allow for year round rice production and weed control testing. Half of this facility would be for weed control work and the other half for blast research.
At their June meeting the RRB discussed financing for the greenhouse. Since the weed control half of the greenhouse is an important component of the weed research work, the Board decided that it would be worthwhile to finance from the Weed Herbicide Control Funds. Total greenhouse cost would be about $324,000, with 50% from the Weed Herbicide Control funds and 16.6% from the RRB general fund for blast research. You may recall that the guiding language for these funds is, to be used only for the purpose of funding the research necessary to secure registration of herbicides for rice. Dr. Fischer and others would utilize this facility to conduct research used in moving new product registrations along. It may also find new uses for existing chemicals or combinations of chemicals.
The RRB members would like to hear your comments about spending the Weed Herbicide Control Funds for a greenhouse to support weed herbicide research. You can give your comments to a Board member, make your comments at the 8/13 meeting, or call or write to the RRB office.
The money you contribute to the Rice Research Board is used for several purposes as you can see by the budget graph. The largest chunk of our budget goes to support the RES. They have their own Board of Directors and we negotiate each year how much the RRB will contribute, but a large portion of their operating budget comes from the RRB.
The result of this infusion of cash is new varieties. New varieties take lots of time to develop, refine, evaluate and test. Often breeding is a race to respond to grower needs and market forces in a timely manner. This year the RES has a bumper crop of new varieties scheduled for release as foundation seed in 1999.