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Carlsberg Foundation award £2.3m for ancient rice genetics project

last modified Oct 05, 2018 09:14 AM
"Uncovering the genetics of rice resilience to environmental stressors: An ancient genomics approach" will map the genome of past rice with the intention of identifying genes that can be used to make the rice of today stronger and more resilient.

The Carlsberg Foundation have awarded DKK 19m (c. £2.3m) to Professor Eske Willerslev from the GeoGenetics Group at the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen for the Semper Ardens project “Uncovering the genetics of rice resilience to environmental stressors: An ancient genomics approach.” The project, which is carried out in cooperation with the Carlsberg Research Laboratory and others will map the genome of past rice with the intention of identifying genes that can be used to make the rice of today stronger and more resilient.

Rice is the world’s second-most important crop; yet every year, vast amounts of the harvest are lost due to disease and extreme weather. By identifying useful genes that can heighten the resilience to these circumstances in present-day rice, it will be possible to make a focused effort to nurture these genes during the plant breeding process, therefore increasing the harvest, securing food supply, and fighting against famine.

The project, which will primarily be conducted at Cambridge University, the Natural History Museum of Denmark at University of Copenhagen, and the Carlsberg Research Laboratory, serves the purpose of mapping the genome of past rice with the intention of finding genes that can make current rice stronger and more resilient. Through a new method, developed at the Centre for Geogenetics (metagenomics environmental DNA) the researchers will be able to extract full genomes from plants and their pathogens from sediments found on the bottom of lakes.

“By mapping the genome of cultivated rice through the last 10,000 years, it will be possible to find the genetic variants which have been important to the survival and reproduction of rice during extreme climate changes and epidemics, but have been lost in the breeding of today’s strains. These genetic variants, then, can be introduced into current rice strains to make them more resistant to changes in the environment. Potentially, it could help fight hunger and increase food security all over the world,” says director for Centre for Geogenetics, Eske Willerslev.

Professor Martin Jones, a co-investigator on the project at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge says, "This is a really exciting opportunity to bring together Eske's world leading group on sedimentary ancient DNA with one of China's foremost quaternary science groups under Fahu Chen. Together, researchers from across the world will assemble a deep time genetic history of one of the world's leading crops, rice. The implications, both for understanding the past, and contributing to food science in the future, are immense." 

Prof Martin Jones 


There are great technical challenges to mapping the genome of past rice. Partly, the old rice grains are relatively rare and often burnt, but the quality of the DNA is not good, either. Therefore, the research project will arise from the discovery that Eske made during his PhD-project, which was, that ancient DNA from plants and animals can be extracted directly from old sediments (environmental DNA).

In addition to environmental DNA, the study will extract and sequence rice genomes from individual pollen grains. Dr. Ana Prohaska, Department of Zoology at Cambridge University, who is developing this novel method with Professor Willerslev, says, “We will collect sediment cores from lakes in China, close to the areas where rice cultivation started approximately 10,000 years ago and extract the DNA of ancient rice from pollen grains preserved in these sediments."

"We will use pollen DNA along with eDNA to search for now-lost genetic variants, which have previously granted rice resilience to pathogens and climatic extremes, e.g., long spells of drought. Following this, the best candidate variants will be introduced into modern rice strains. We will do this by incorporating the genetic variants directly into the modern rice genome and, afterwards, growing the modified rice plants in different controlled environments to identify the most well qualified types.”

Regarding the grant, chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, Professor Flemming Besenbacher, says, “Eske Willerslev and the researchers at the Centre for Geogenetics have developed a powerful approach, which in great detail will tell us how the rice types of the past survived disease outbreaks or climatic changes through natural selection. The perspectives are far-reaching and will be able to help solve major global challenges. Therefore, the project is exactly of the type that the Carlsberg Foundation wants to support with a Semper Arden grant, which is given to excellent researchers with a special passionate and burning approach to their research”.

It is of the essence to the Carlsberg Research Laboratory to produce high-quality raw materials. “One of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory’s key priorities is to, along with cultivators around the world, identify new genetic varieties that can withstand extreme weather and climate changes. This project aims at identifying old genetic rice varieties with a natural robustness and resistance against certain diseases. In this, the Carlsberg Research Laboratory contributes expertise in testing and traditional cultivation in order to identify such genetic varieties in modern rice and thereby improving the rice plants of the future,” says Vice President of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory, Birgitte Skadhauge.


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