ITHACA, N.Y. -- Biologists at Cornell and Washington universities have genetically engineered and successfully field tested rice plants that resist some of the most destructive insects as well as salt and drought damage. Technology for the transgenic rice plants, which incorporates genes from potato plants to resist insect damage and genes from barley plants to make them salt-and drought-tolerant, will be given to developing countries under provisions of a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Rights to the technology, which potentially can reduce crops losses by billions of dollars each year, will be sold in developed countries such as the United States and Japan.
Development of the insect-resistant rice, which was reported in the April 1996 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, marks the first time that useful genes were successfully transferred from a dicotyledonous plant, the potato, to rice, a monocotyedonous plant.
The potato genes cause rice plants to produce a protein that interferes with insects' digestive process whenever the plant is wounded by insects. Thus, insects such as the pink stem borer eat less, grow less quickly, and plant damage is reduced to tolerable levels. A barley gene enables rice plants to produce a protein that makes them salt- and drought-resistant so that they grow in saline conditions and recover quickly from dry conditions.
"These are capabilities that wild plants develop naturally over years of evolution, but we can't afford to wait for domestic rice varieties to evolve resistance to insect pests or drought," said Ray Wu, Cornell professor of biochemistry, molecular and cell biology, and leader of the international team that spliced other plant species' genes into rice. "Hundreds of millions of hungry people need this rice now, and the crop losses to insects, drought and increasing salinization of soils are devastating."