Rod Wing and fellow researchers at the Arizona Genomics Institute led an international effort to complete a genomic road map for African rice that should lead to greater productivity for the world’s most important grain.
It also fills in details of a cultivation story that stretches from West Africa to the slave plantations of the Carolinas.
Africans in the Niger Valley first cultivated wild strains of rice into an important commodity more than 3,000 years ago, according to the international group’s paper, published this week in Nature Genetics.
Portuguese traders then transported the rice and the knowledge needed to grow it in slave ships to the New World, according to one of the paper’s co-authors, Judith Carney, a geographer and environmental scientist at UCLA.
Carney has spent decades researching the story of African rice, seeking to show that the agricultural economy of the Southern states, in particular the Carolinas, benefited not just from the labor of slaves but from their knowledge of agricultural techniques.
Wing said Carney’s 2001 book, “Black Rice” was an inspiration for his genomic study.
“We wanted to tell a story along with the genome work,” Wing said.
Wing, whose team previously helped map the genome of Asian rice, or Oryza sativa, said the genetic detective work done on both species demonstrates clearly that they were individually cultivated, with the Asian variety coming first some 10,000 years ago.
The African rice, Oryza glaberrima, produced a thriving agricultural economy in the New World, particularly in South Carolina, said Carney.
Growers adopted techniques developed in Africa to grow rice under varying conditions.
“Rice cultivation had a central role in building strong, knowledgeable and vibrant agrarian cultures in West Africa,” according to the Nature Genetics paper, whose 31 authors come from four continents and represent universities, research institutes and seed companies.
Rice continues to be an important crop in West Africa, where it is grown in a variety of ecological niches — from riverine mangrove swamp to drier upland areas.
Many African farmers switched to Asian varieties over the years because of its higher yields, but growing it demanded fertilizers, pesticides and more water, said Carney.
The African rices are hardier, more salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant and disease-resistant than the more widely cultivated strains, said Wing.
An effort known as Nerica or “New Rice for Africa” has already blended those qualities into the higher yield Asian rice, Wing said.
The genome structure his team created will allow rice to be grown even more efficiently in less-than-ideal conditions.
Wing said his overall goal is to tackle the “9 billion problem” — the question of where food will come from when the world’s population balloons to 9 billion people by 2050.
Georgia Eizenga, a research geneticist with the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Arkansas, said the genetic framework done by Wing and his colleagues should prove useful in Africa and other areas with similar growing conditions.
“The types of things that Rod did are more in-depth, give you more backbone to work with. “Is it useful? Yes? Will it be used? Not all of it.”
Knowledge of the genetic markers that produce certain traits is one thing, she said. “You still need somebody to grow it and to test it.”
Wing will be pursuing development of better strains as the AXA Endowed Chair of Genome Biology and Evolutionary Genomics at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, where he expects to spend about 25 percent of his time in the coming years.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Wing. It’s a chance to translate this genome biology into practical solutions.”
Wing is director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, a member of the UA’s Bio5 Institute and a professor in the School of Plant Sciences and the department of ecology and evolutionary biology.