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Water-saving grain

10:57am, September 26, 2007

Rice is the staple food for more than half the world's population, including many people in developing countries. But the rice plant consumes more than twice as much water as other grain crops do, leaving some countries especially vulnerable to drought.

Now, an international team of scientists has identified a gene that, when added to rice's DNA, reduces the plant's water consumption and boosts its growth.

The gene, called HARDY, comes from thale cress, a weedlike plant that's commonly used in genetic research. Andy Pereira of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, and his colleagues found a variant of this gene in thale cress plants that had unusually small, thick leaves and extensive roots.

When Pereira and his colleagues engineered thale cress to have an overactive version of this variant, the plants were able to survive 12 days without water. Unmodified plants lasted no more than 9 days.

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