Super-Rice: a UK-China Collaboration to Improve Rice Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Plant Sciences


World food demand is predicted to double by 2050. Meeting this demand is a major global challenge, and requires increased crop yields at minimal environmental cost. Present-day high-yielding 'green revolution crop varieties' (GRVs) are inefficient in their use of nitrogen (N) fertiliser, an inefficiency that is costly to the farmer and damaging to the environment. The world needs new crops that are both higher yielding and have increased N use efficiency (NUE).

Our project fuses distinct UK/China expertise to improve rice NUE. It retains the outstanding features of current rice GRVs, and transforms them into Super-Rice varieties that are high yielding and have enhanced NUE. Using a pioneering approach combining the discovery of natural genetic variants with marker-assisted breeding and 'genome editing', we will create Super-Rice that will be high-yielding when grown with reduced N fertiliser inputs.

First, WPs1-3 exploit a variety of genetic, genomic and bioinformatics techniques to discover individual genetic variants that increase the NUE of rice GRVs. WP1 discovers the molecular identities of variant genes increasing NUE in the field. WP2 focusses on variants of the developmental regulatory genes that play overarching roles in controlling the growth and metabolism of plants. There is important precedent for exploiting such regulatory variation, because the initial GRVs themselves were created by use of such variants. WP3 focusses on the discovery of variants increasing the activity of the transporters that enable rice to extract N from the soil. However, the variants discovered in WPs1-3 may come from wild or other strains of rice that are not themselves GRVs. WPs1-3 therefore importantly use the new technique of genome-editing to specifically determine if these new variants increase NUE in GRV genetic backgrounds. Genome-editing enables precise alteration of genome sequence, thus enabling us to edit specific GRV gene sequences (change them into the newly discovered variant form). The yield of these genome-edited GRVs will then be measured in low-N soils, thus telling us if the newly discovered variant can indeed increase the NUE of the GRV.

Next, WP4 further exploits the ability of genome editing to simultaneously edit more than one genomic location. This enables the combined ('stacked') introduction of multiple variants into one GRV. It is possible that variant combinations will generate NUE increases that are at least additive (a simple sum of individual variant effects) and that may be synergistic (increases that are greater than the simple sum effects of individual variants). Thus, in WP4, we will combine ('stack') multiple selected variants into Super-Rice genotypes, and then determine the yields of these Super-Rice genotypes in low-N soils.

Our genome-edited Super-Rice will not contain any 'foreign' transgenes, and may therefore more readily receive regulatory approval for agricultural use than will transgenic 'GM' varieties. However, because full adoption of Super-Rice requires general public acceptance, we will also pioneer the use of genome-edited Super-Rice to enhance the efficiency, focus and speed of conventional marker-assisted breeding of Super-Rice. Genome-edited Super-Rice will guide plant breeders in the development of (non-genome-edited) Super-Rice that will be bred using natural rice variants and that will be publicly acceptable because it is neither GM nor genome-edited.

The promotion of bilateral UK-China rice research relationships is another major objective of our proposal. We build upon and sustain pre-existing partnerships (XF and NPH; XF and QQ), and derive added value from a new one (NPH and QQ). In summary, we propose a transnational UK-China partnership that will breed publicly acceptable enhanced-NUE Super-Rice that will enhance the sustainability of Chinese and world agriculture and help feed the world in the years leading up to 2050 and beyond.

Planned Impact

Our project will meet a growing need for bilateral UK-China research partnerships that promote novel approaches to rice NUE within the context of global pressures on food security and the need for sustainable intensification (SI) of agriculture. The project's multidisciplinary research will promote the development of enhanced-NUE rice varieties that can in the future be used within advanced integrated agronomic soil-cropping management systems, thus providing an overall drive to the promotion of Chinese SI agriculture. In addition, the project sustains a pre-existant UK-China partnership (NPH and XF), and creates a new one (NPH and QQ), thus enhancing bilateral UK-China strategic research relationships, and flow of capacity-building from UK to Chinese research.

The project will generate the following impacts:
- Identified key genes and elite alleles for breeding and biotechnological development of enhanced-NUE rice varieties
- Germplasm and linked markers for adoption in Chinese rice-breeding programmes
- Pre-breeding yield-trial evaluation of developed rice materials
- Strategies for breeding enhanced-NUE rice varieties via marker-assisted breeding, with use of genome editing/transformation to guide those breeding strategies
- New products (germplasm, varieties) that will contribute to the SI of Chinese agriculture
- High-impact publications (world-leading research) in top-level international scientific journals
- Enhanced bilateral strategic research relationships between the UK and China in the science and development of rice with enhanced NUE
- New individual bilateral UK-China partnerships
- New ways of bilateral working that exploit modern communications technologies
- Enhancement of China's research capacity (including dissemination, impact maximisation, IP-strengthening, commercialisation)
- A Chinese agriculture that increases yield with reduced N inputs
- Promotion of China's economic development and welfare

Who will benefit from the project's research?

There essentially four groups of beneficiaries of this research:
1. The worldwide (both China, UK and international) community of Academic Beneficiaries (as above).
2. Worldwide commercial private sector and public-funded concerns developing plants with increased NUE in agriculture,
horticulture and forestry.
3. Farmers.
4. The general public (China, UK and world).

How will they benefit from this research?
1. From the application to their own research of concepts, technologies or materials developed by the project.
2. Exploitation of project discoveries will confer widespread economic benefit to plant breeders and the plant biotechnology industry in China, the UK and the rest of the world.
3. Farmers will be able to grow rice more cost-effectively (with reduced input costs).
4. The general public will benefit in terms of quality of life and health: increased yields at reduced environmental cost (e.g., from input run-off) will contribute towards the sustainable increases in healthy food production that are essential for future food security.

Ultimately, the project will benefit China's economic development and welfare, and will contribute UK expertise, resources and infrastructure to assist with China's drive towards optimization of agricultural N use, with reciprocal benefits to UK agricultural science and practise.
Description Grant still in progress. In UK have identified and cloned HY5 homologos from rice. In China, have narrowed down QTLs for nutrient use efficiency. Work continues.
Exploitation Route Once the work is complete our work may be useful to plant breeders.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink