Research being done at the University of Arizona could help plant scientists blend the vitality and survivability of wild rice species with the productivity of species that have been long bred and cultivated for food.

UA plant scientist Rod Wing will lead a group of researchers over the next four years who will examine the genetic makeup of wild rice, with the goals of improving the world's food supply and better understanding the genetic evolution of plants.

They've won a $9.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the UA said Friday.

Wing, director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, has previously helped sequence the corn or "maize" gene, and has already sequenced the two most popular species of rice, grown in Asia and Africa.

The goal in that research, and in this expansion of it, was to find the genes in rice that give it the ability to survive drought and ward off disease, he said Friday.

Much genetic material is long gone from cultivated rice, he said.

Early farmers chose rice solely for its harvest potential. The wild rices that "shatter," or scatter seed before it can be harvested, were culled out, but continued to grow in the wild. Those species of wild rice should have a large amount of genetic material that is not available in the cultivated strains, Wing said.

Improving cultivated rice is difficult, he said, because much of their genetic material has been bred out over the centuries.

"Their wild relatives represent a virtually untapped reservoir of genes," said Wing.

They could hold the key to developing a "super rice, a next-generation species" that could be grown on poorer land, with less water or less added fertilizer.

Wing will collaborate with other plant scientists, including the UA's Michael Sanderson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who will examine the relationships between the genomes of the species, seeking to understand how and where they differ.

Other U.S. scientists and some in Germany and France will collaborate in the study.

The education component of the grant will fund programs from the graduate college level down to kindergarten through 5th grade, says a UA news release. Ventana Vista Elementary School, for example, will hold family nights in plant science.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.