UA Little Rock receives $1 million to study genetics of heat-tolerant rice

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and several doctoral students are researching heat tolerance in rice in hopes of helping rice farmers improve their yield – and ultimately – reduce hunger.

Dr. Mariya Khodakovskaya, a biology professor and interim associate dean in the College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences, received a $1 million grant to study the genetic qualities of rice to determine its heat tolerance.

She is part of a consortium of researchers from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville, UA Little Rock, Oklahoma State University, and Louisiana State University. Dr. Andy Pereira, professor of crop, soil and environmental science in the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and the UA Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, leads the consortium.

The four universities collectively received $4.65 million from the National Science Foundation to support their work over a four-year period. The team is studying the genetics of more than 400 rice varieties collected from around the world. The goal of the project is to ensure active, stable rice production to keep up with future population growth and environmental changes. The results will be shared with farmers.

“We are working in live science,” Khodakovskaya said. “This is important because it is close to the needs of society and close to industry. We target a lot of practical problems, and the final results will be results that public can assess and use.”

The consortium will study rice grown in two different environments: one under heat stress and one under the actual air temperature of the environment. By comparing the two groups of plants, the researchers will be able to identify varieties of rice that produce high-quality grains in spite of rising temperatures.

At UA Little Rock, four doctoral students in applied science are assisting Khodakovskaya – Diamond McGehee, Sudha Shanmugam, Zoya Nadeem Faruqui, and Kamal Pandey. Kamal Pandey also manages the greenhouse located atop UA Little Rock’s Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences, where the students grow and monitor rice specimens.

Their study examines the links between plant metabolism and heat response in rice in order to identify proteins and biomolecules, called metabolites, associated with heat tolerance. The team will use liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry to monitor rice metabolism.  

“Using that and other data, we can go through and find out which compounds are being produced and identify different sensitivities to heat stress,” said Diamond McGehee of Conway. “We hope it will give us insights into mechanisms for heat tolerance in rice.”

Shanmugam, who is from India, said the research is important for the long-term applications.

“Rice is a staple food for half of the world’s population,” she said. “Millions of farmers are having trouble growing rice because of climate. Each year, 40 percent of the crops are lost due to drought. Because of that, it’s better to create a drought-tolerant rice if it will help the farmers.”

Arkansas is the country’s largest producer of rice, which is also the state’s top export.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

 

Dr. Mariya Khodakovskaya (right) and  her team of applied science doctoral students are researching the heat tolerance of rice. Students include (from left) Diamond McGehee, Zoya Faruqui, Kamal Pandey and Sudha Shanmugam. Photo by Benjamin Krain

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