Researchers at the University of California report a surprise finding: a gene that ''waterproofs'' rice plants also protects them from drought. The Sub1a gene, which naturally occurs in some low-yielding varieties in India, was discovered in the 1990s at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Subsequent research showed that when the gene is bred into high-yielding varieties it can protect the submerged rice in over flooded paddies.
The Californian scientists have now elucidated the mechanism: Sub1A coordinates how the plant cells respond to dehydration, which occurs in droughts, but also following a period of submergence in floods. The gene helps rice recover after a flood, when it dehydrates after sudden exposure to drier conditions. The effect has been seen in the laboratory and the greenhouse so far. IRRI is planning follow-up research later this year. The findings are of particular interest with an eye to adapting to the impacts of climate change.