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New Balance of Rice Genes

Genetically modifying rice could help develop varieties that are less dependent on fertilizer and better for the environment, Scientific American reports. It adds that the green revolution in the 1950s and 1960s boosted crop production, but the use of chemical fertilizers has negatively affected the environment.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science have found a key interaction that affects the plant's growth and metabolism. As they recently reported in Nature, Xiangdong Fu, a CAS researcher, and his colleagues found that the rice transcription factor Growth-Regulating Factor 4 (GRF4) regulates a number of nitrogen-metabolism genes, while also supporting carbon fixation and growth. At the same time, DELLA, a growth repressor, discourages those processes, they add.

Tweaking the GRF4-DELLA relationship to favor GRF4 could, the researchers say, lead to rice varieties that more efficiently use nitrogen, and SciAm adds that using genetic engineering approaches, they did just that.

"Human activity is adding too much nitrogen to the planet," Xin Zhang from the University of Maryland Center tells SciAm. "It's critical to improve the efficiency of the system." She adds, though, that nitrogen pollution can't be stopped by only genetic engineering and other approaches are needed.