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Arkansas Sate turns up the heat on rice crops

February 11, 2019

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) — A group of Arkansas State University educators and students are studying effects of heat on rice crops in a three-university project aimed at discovering plants that can withstand global warming.

Scientists at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Kansas State University are also looking at creating a heat-resilient variety of wheat. The five-year, $6 million project is funded by the National Science Foundation through its Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research program.

Argelia Lorence, director of ASU’s phenomics facility and a Vaughn Endowed Professorship of metabolic engineering, is heading the ASU study with Wency Larazo, a rice agronomist.

She said climate data has shown that during the past 40 years, the average night time temperature in areas that produce rice have increased by 5 degrees. That’s indicative, she said, of continued rising temperatures that are putting stress on important crops.

“This isn’t a political issue,” she said to The Jonesboro Sun. “It’s a food issue.”

Lorence and seven ASU students will construct six greenhouse tents at a newly opened University of Arkansas rice research center at Harrisburg in March. The team will plant 400 various breeds of rice in each of the tents and raise temperatures in three of the tents to see how resilient they are. Each plant is photographed daily to see how the increased climate may affect it.

The plants will also be taken back to the Arkansas Biosciences Institute on the ASU campus in Jonesboro where they will be further tested for size, color, the amount of chlorophyll they contain and their leaf temperatures.

When Lorence and her team find the most resilient brands of rice, they will present their findings to rice breeders who can then attempt to crossbreed brands for a more heat-resilient form of rice seed.

Lorence, who has been at ASU for 14 years, was raised in Mexico City, Mexico. She earned her doctorate in biotechnology at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

She worked on projects in Mexico until a change in the country’s government took science funding decisions from the National Council on Science and Technology and gave it to politicians instead.

“Instead of the (council) deciding what was best, they let the politicians decide,” she said. “It was about who you knew. I knew no politicians.”

She decided to move to the United States and began working at labs at Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.

While at Virginia Tech, she was part of a team that published the discovery of a new biosynthetic pathway for vitamin C in plants.

She sent 25 applicants to research institutes across the country and was offered three jobs, including one at ASU.

The Arkansas Biosciences Institute attracted Lorence, and she accepted the position. In addition to the rice study, she is also leading a team in understanding how vitamin C delays aging and contributes to plant tolerance to stresses.

Lorence’s rice-studying team is an international group of students. Along with Larazo, who is from the Philippines, the team is made up of doctoral students Kharla Mendez and Cherryl Quinones, both of the Philippines; master’s student Shannon Cunningham of the Bahamas; post-doctorate student Karina Medina-Jimenez of Mexico; and undergraduate student Lilian Aniemena of Nigeria.

She is also working with Arlene Adviento-Borbe, a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Delta Water Management Unit.

A team at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln that is conducting similar greenhouse tests with wheat is led by Harkamal Walia, an associate professor of agronomy and horticulture.

“We are excited about this project,” Lorence said. “The amount of land for crops is decreasing, but there are more people. We need to eat. The only way to do this is to make the crops more productive. I love coming to work,” she said. “This is my passion. We’re working as hard as we can.”

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Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, http://www.jonesborosun.com

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