David Salt searches for genes to make rice healthier

Much of Earth’s population today depends on rice for food. In the fight against world hunger, David Salt of Purdue University in Indiana is looking for the genes that regulate micronutrients and trying to create a nutrient-packed rice plant.

Much of Earth’s population today – approximately 3 billion people – depend on rice for food.

David Salt: One of the things that people talk about is that the ‘green revolution’ in the ’60s really provided enough calories for most of the world. But what it didn’t do, it didn’t provide micronutrients. Iron and zinc, for example, are now being called the ‘hidden hunger’ in the world.

David Salt is a professor in Purdue’s Department of Horticulture. He and his colleagues are working in a laboratory, looking for the genes that regulate micronutrients such as iron and zinc in rice.

David Salt: If we could really understand how rice plants do that, and are able to manipulate rice plants to put more of those essential micronutrients like iron and zinc into the grain, then we’re going to impact a substantial amount of people worldwide who rely on rice as their primary food source.

Salt said that his research might also help scientists understand how rice grains absorb harmful chemicals, like arsenic. But the ultimate goal is to create a rice plant that is packed more full of nutrients.

David Salt: We would definitely like to create a rice plant that is packed full of nutrients. Whether that comes about through genetic engineering or assisted traditional breeding, there are several ways to go, but that is the ultimate goal.

Could this work affect nutrition throughout the world?

David Salt: Absolutely. Without a doubt.

Salt told EarthSky that in order to improve the rice plants’ nutritional value, he and other scientists need to learn more about how rice grains accumulate nutrients. He said he hopes that his work on rice will help us better understand the biochemistry of other grass crops, including maize, barley and wheat. But, he added, farmers have to be willing to plant the improved rice.

David Salt: Somehow you’ve got to build in a benefit for the farmer. If you have a rice plant that, let’s say, is more disease resistant, then there’s an immediate benefit for the farmer. So the farmer plants the rice and it doesn’t get attacked by a bunch of critters, and the farmer harvests more rice. It’s very clear to them that this is a good type of rice to grow.

Our thanks to:
David Salt
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN

Deborah Byrd