Prompted in part by the scores of rice crops that were destroyed by last year's devastating Japan tsunami, scientists are developing a salt-resistant variety of rice, Voice of America reports. (Rice cannot survive in salt-contaminated soil, and 20,000 hectares of paddies were flooded with ocean water following the tsunami.)

Plant biologist Sophien Kamoun at the Sainsbury Laboratory in the United Kingdom and colleagues in Japan started with a popular high-quality rice variety and, using a technique common in plant breeding, introduced mutations in the plant's genes with a chemical.

In the time-consuming and labor-intensive process, “you end up with thousands of plants that have all kinds of changes in their habits,” both positive and negative, Kamoun told VOA. “And then you plant them out there in the field and identify the plants that have particular traits of interest.”

To speed up the process, Kamoun's group used new technology to sequence the entire genomes of the plants with those traits of interest, identifying precisely what genetic changes were found in plants with the new traits and where those changes appear on the map of the rice genome. This technique makes plant breeding so much more precise, the scientists say they should have a salt-resistant rice strain available to farmers within a couple of years. Traditionally, such genetic manipulation takes a decade or longer as negative traits are bred out and positive traits are reinforced.

Kamoun said his colleagues have already improved the salt tolerance of a high-quality rice variety in greenhouse experiments. Japan's ruined rice paddies might be the first to test out the new strains.

Plus, the methods the scientists are perfecting should cut the time needed to develop other rice varieties, and other crops as well, Kamoun added.

LA Weekly