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How LSU Professors Are Designing Climate-Resilient Rice to Withstand Heat, Drought, Salinity

How LSU  Professors Are Designing Climate-Resilient Rice to Withstand Heat, Drought, Salinity

By JAMES WILKINS

Behind only California and Arkansas, Louisiana produces the third-most rice of any U.S. state, and the starchy grain is a major staple in much of the state's unique cuisine. 

As production of rice has increased through the decades in Louisiana and beyond, so has the need for more water to grow and harvest it.

In an attempt to continue large-scale production of rice while curtailing the water required to grow it, one LSU professor is joining up with the LSU Ag Center — and a team of researchers — to develop a new type of climate-resilient rice that can battle heat, drought and water salinity.

With a team of 24 researchers from five states, lead by LSU AgCenter School of Plant, Environmental, and Soil Sciences professor Prasanta Subudhi, the project is dedicated to increasing how sustainable and profitable rice production systems can be.

Subudhi pointed out that a major focus of rice production in the United States for hundreds of years has been in generating more yield each year. But with rice as an increasingly resource-intensive crop, using valuable water and land, he said the focus should now shift to making rice more efficiently and providing rice producers with tools to combat climate problems.

"Yield has plateaued now, there is not much room to increase the productivity," Subudhi said. "And that is compounded by this climate change thing, because that is also limiting our ability to sustain rice productivity in the long run. So that is why the most important need of this project is to develop climate-resilient varieties, not only in rice, but in every crop."

Backed by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project plans to achieve its goals by studying two separate hypotheses for installing climate-resilient rice varieties.

Resilient rice

The first hypothesis, researched by LSU Mechanical Engineering associate professor Manas Gartia, is that sustainability and profitability of rice production systems can be enhanced by creating new climate-resilient rice varieties and implementing innovative crop management practices.

According to Subudhi, rice has approximately 35,000 genes. Gartia's work on the project involves studying molecular changes in rice due to various stresses such as salt, drought, water, and heat to identify the genes responsible for that behavior.

“Our research mainly addresses how we can come up with a new variety or identify the dominant gene that would be able to be used in a particular variety of rice that can withstand these droughts,” Gartia said.

Using metabolomic — the study of small molecules called metabolites — and imaging technologies, Gartia plans to determine whether they can accurately assess heat, drought and other stress levels in both genetically diverse and genetically identical rice lines with differences in stress-tolerance levels.

"Using this method, we hope that we'll be able to find five or 10 genes that are very specific to this particular type of tolerance," he said. "That's the goal of our project."

Education and extension

As part of the larger LSU AgCenter mission, the second hypothesis of the project relies on education and outreach extension programs that will help accelerate the use of climate-resilient rice management by current and future generations of rice growers in the South and Louisiana in particular.

According to Subudhi, a portion of the $10 million from the USDA has been dedicated toward this education. With LSU AgCenter extension offices in all 64 parishes, the plan is to expand on the project by teaching about climate-resilient rice to growers across the state.

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