In Washington state, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found that with the addition of a single gene, rice can be cultivated to emit virtually no methane from its paddies during growth. With the change, it also packs much more of the plant’s desired properties, such as starch for a richer food source and biomass for energy production, according to a study in Nature.
With their warm, waterlogged soils, rice paddies contribute up to 17 percent of global methane emissions, the equivalent of about 100 million tons each year. While this represents a much smaller percentage of overall greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, methane is about 20 times more effective at trapping heat. SUSIBA2 rice, as the new strain is dubbed, is the first high-starch, low-methane rice that could offer a significant and sustainable solution.
Researchers created SUSIBA2 rice by introducing a single gene from barley into common rice, resulting in a plant that can better feed its grains, stems and leaves while starving off methane-producing microbes in the soil.
In early work in Sweden, Jansson and his team investigated how distribution of sugars in plants could be controlled by a special protein called a transcription factor, which binds to certain genes and turns them on or off. Upon discovery of the transcription factor SUSIBA2, for SUgar SIgnaling in BArley 2, further investigation revealed it was a type known as a master regulator. Master regulators control several genes and processes in metabolic or regulatory pathways. As such, SUSIBA2 had the ability to direct the majority of carbon to the grains and leaves, and essentially cut off the supply to the roots and soil where certain microbes consume and convert it to methane.
Researchers introduced SUSIBA2 into a common variety of rice and tested its performance against a non-modified version of the same strain. Over three years of field studies in China, researchers consistently demonstrated that SUSIBA2 delivered increased crop yields and a near elimination of methane emissions.