April 30, 2014

Study to focus on rice genes, yield and climate

Cornell researchers received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study relationships among rice genetics, crop yields and climate.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded 10 universities, including Cornell, a total of $6 million April 22 to research the effects of changing climate on agriculture production and to develop strategies and solutions for farmers and ranchers to supply the nation’s food.

At Cornell, researchers in the lab of principal investigator Susan McCouch, professor of plant breeding and genetics and of plant biology, and colleagues from climate science, agricultural economics and crop physiology, will use an interdisciplinary approach to address fundamental questions to improve rice production and breeding under climate variability.

The researchers will incorporate data into a new computer model developed by Joshua Woodard, assistant professor of applied economics and management at Cornell and project co-principal investigator, to determine associations between rice genome regions related to yield, real market data and different weather parameters.

Information of rice yields was obtained from real USDA market data over the last 40 years, which provide details of rice variety acreage per county and county-level yields.

“We have access to those [rice] varieties, and we are looking at the genetics of each variety that was planted over the last 40 years,” said Diane Wang, a graduate student in McCouch’s lab who manages the project and will use the results to inform her doctoral thesis.

These data will be combined with monthly weather station data of temperatures and precipitation in areas where the rice varieties were planted. This is the first time that real market data, as opposed to experimental data, have been used to model the relationship among genetic variation, yield and weather.

The researchers hope to gain insights on rice genes that provide resilience in the face of climate changes, which could help breeders develop new varieties.

Results from this study may have wider implications for new strategies to study the relationship between genomic signatures and climate resilience in other major cereal crops, such as maize and wheat, Wang said.

David Lobell, assistant professor of environmental earth system science at Stanford University; Anna McClung, research leader at the USDA Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Ark.; and Lew Ziska, USDA plant physiologist in Beltsville, Md., also serve as co-principal investigators.