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Native rice may hold key to food future
Australian native rice may contain valuable genes that could help buffer the world's rice crop against the damage wrought by rising global temperatures.

Agricultural expert Dr Graeme Batten from the University of Sydney says Australia has several species of native rice growing in the north with the potential to enhance commercial rice.

"There is potential either to market the rice as Australian wild rice, or take some of the useful genes and incorporate them into commercial species of rice," says Batten.

"Australian native rice has a large genetic variation, and may turn out to be tolerant to acid soils, heat, salt and possibly even drought."

Rice is one of the most important food crops in the world, and is eaten daily by an estimated three billion people, according to the International Rice Research Institute.

In August, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned rice yields are expected to decline over the coming decades as global temperatures rise. It highlighted the need for heat tolerant strains of rice would be needed to offset this.
Native solutions

According to Macquarie University researchers, Australian native rice may offer a solution.

Australian native rice is a tall tropical perennial grass that grows across northern Australia - from Port Hedland to Townsville. There are four native species: Oryza australiensis, O. rufipogon, O. meridionalis and O. officinalis.

The seeds when picked are a rich bronzy red and after hulling, the grains are a creamy white reflecting their high protein content compared to conventional rice.

Associate Professor Brian Atwell says O. meridionalis, collected from Cape York, can grow in temperatures 6C higher than conventional rice varieties from South East Asia.

"It's probably unprecedented for two closely related plant species to have such an enormous difference in temperature tolerance," says Atwell.
Untapped species

He says Japanese agricultural researchers have visited Australia in the past to collect native varieties of rice for investigation.

"I think it's just dawning on a few groups around the world that the Australian rice is an extraordinary sleeping resource," says Atwell.

"I think eventually the country will turn and look at the tropics (for food production).

"If you look at the 24 species of rice around the world, only two are commercial. So only 10% to 15% of the whole genetic variation of rice is found in the varieties that we eat. The other 85% is found in the wild relatives."

In the meantime, Batten has applied for a grant from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation to collect rice plants from the wild for further study.

He says the collection process can be extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous. Rice grows in inaccessible swamps or on flood plains, with researchers having to contend with large crocodiles.
Not without risks

But plant pathologist Associate Professor Gavin Ash from Charles Sturt University says commercial native rice production could present a risk to conventional rice crops.

"We've done some work on diseases in wild Australian rice and found a lot of foliar diseases, such as leaf blotches," says Ash. "There seems to be very little resistance, so it would need to be managed if the rice were to be harvested."

He says care must be taken if native varieties are to be crossed with domesticated ones.

"You would need to make sure you weren't bringing that susceptibility to disease across as well," says Ash.

"We are also worried about a disease called rice blast coming out of places like East Timor, being blown down in tropical storms and then stepping into Australia if native rice was grown up there.

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