Asaph Cousins, professor in the WSU School of Biological Science, is a co-PI on a multinational research project focused on revolutionizing global rice production.

The next phase of what is known as the C4 Rice Project has been given the green light for five years during which time scientists believe they will develop a prototype for a strain of rice which would give extra yield and endure harsher environmental conditions.

Put simply, it could help to feed a world which is already struggling to provide for its expanding population, particularly in South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, over 3 billion people in Asia depend on rice for survival, and, owing to predicted population increases and a general trend towards urbanisation, the same area of land that provided enough rice to feed 27 people in 2010 will need to support 43 by 2050.

Rice uses the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which in hot dry environments is much less efficient than the C4 pathway used in other plants such as maize and sorghum. The C4 Rice project aims to ‘switch’ rice to use C4 photosynthesis, with transformational potential.

The C4 photosynthetic pathway, which has evolved over 60 times independently, accounts for around a quarter of terrestrial primary productivity on the planet despite being used by only 3 percent of species. This productivity of C4 plants is in part due to their CO2 concentrating mechanism, which significantly enhances rates of photosynthesis under drought and elevated temperatures.

The primary role of the Cousins laboratory in the C4 Rice Project is to determine the photosynthetic efficiency of plants generated during this project.

“We have learned a lot about the molecular biology, physiology, leaf development and biochemistry of C4 photosynthesis during the initial phases of this project and it’s exciting that we have received additional support to implement this knowledge to enhance photosynthesis in rice,” said Cousins.

By the end of the next phase of research in 2024 scientists hope to have experimental field plots up and running in Taiwan. The scale and reach of the project means that this is a trans-generational project.

“This is about being custodians of something that’s bigger than our individual scientific interests,” said Jane Langdale, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford.

The C4 Rice Project consortium comprises the University of Oxford (lead), Academia Sinica, Australian National University, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, Leibniz Institute of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, and Washington State University.