China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of rice in the global economy, accounting for around 30% of its production and consumption. It’s a staple food of two-thirds of its population, and effective production is crucial.
“The widespread adoption of hybrids have been crucial in increasing the rice yield in China, but it can always be better,” says Professor James Whelan. “It’s not just rice, there’s plenty of need to increase the world’s food production capacity.”
For the past ten years Professor Whelan, a plant biologist at La Trobe University’s AgriBio, has been collaborating with researchers in the College of Life Sciences at Zhejiang University in China. Their goal is to increase the absorption rate of phosphate fertilisers in crops.
“At the moment crops will absorb and use about 10 - 30% of phosphate fertilisers, with the remainder being washed away.” says Professor Whelan. “Not only is this phosphate runoff a waste of expensive fertiliser, but it’s damaging the environment. It’s this type of pollution that is causing coral bleaching and algae blooms on the Great Barrier Reef.”
Professor Whelan’s lab works with thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana - the first plant in the world to have its genome sequenced in 2000) and rice (the crop plant that feeds more people than any other crop).
“We use epigenetic change, and deliberately lower the phosphate in the plant’s environment,” he says. “The crops ‘remember’ these times of stress when there wasn’t much phosphate, and so when re-exposed to lower level again it may give them an advantage – so they remember how to cope with the stress.”
While these improvements aren’t passed on to later generations of crops, it can provide a novel approach to improve phosphate absorption.
“These fertilisers aren’t cheap, so anything we can do to increase the absorption rate will mean less waste and increased crop yields.” says Professor Whelan. “Even just a change of 5 - 10% will save tens of millions of dollars.”