BRIEF: How Rice Plants Grow Tall to Survive Floods

Scientists identified the key gene that helps certain rice varieties keep their heads above water.
Rice Plants Grow Tall
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Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- When monsoon floods inundate rice fields in the lowlands of Southeast Asia, some varieties of the plant have a trick up their sleeves: As the waters rise, the rice plants go through a sudden growth spurt, keeping their leaves in the air and staying alive. Now a team of researchers from the U.S. and Japan has identified the key gene that makes these varieties, called deepwater rice, resilient to flood.

The gene is called SEMIDWARF1, or SD1 for short. According to a paper published today in the journal Science, when rice plants are submerged in water, the gaseous plant hormone ethylene starts to build up in their tissue. For rice plants with the SD1 gene, the accumulation of ethylene then triggers the production of the growth-promoting plant hormone known as gibberellin, which helps the plants rise above the water.

According to the researchers, the SD1 gene can be found in different variants of rice that humans have cultivated for higher yields in areas prone to monsoon flooding, and modern day deepwater rice can trace its ancestry back to wild rice from Bangladesh. A better understanding of genomic characteristics in these plants may help scientists develop adaptive food crops in the face of climate change.

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Yuen Yiu is a former staff writer for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.