Biological sciences professor receives USDA funding to increase cold tolerance in rice for an earlier planting season

Dr. Michael Schläppi, professor of biological sciences in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, has received a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study cold tolerance in rice with a goal of expanding the rice planting season to earlier in the year in order to avoid seasonal effects that hinder quality and yield.

Funding for the project, “Mechanisms of Cold Stress Tolerance Responses in Rice,” comes from a program area of the USDA’s Agricultural and Food Research Initiative, which was established to increase knowledge of plant systems and the various factors that affect agricultural plant productivity.

“Rice yield would be enhanced if growers could plant two weeks earlier in the season,” Schläppi said. “This shift would allow growers to better utilize the spring rain and avoid the high nighttime temperatures of summer, which decrease grain quality and yield. This grant will allow us to use molecular and genetic approaches to identify strong-effect rice cold tolerance genes and molecular mechanisms to enhance chilling tolerance of commercially grown rice in the United States.”

Schläppi’s research team will work to provide a better understanding of the basic genetic and cellular mechanisms responsible for tolerance to cold temperatures at the germination and seedling stages in rice. To accomplish this, they will test hypotheses for mechanisms of rice cold tolerance responses, fine-map previously identified quantitative trait loci for cold tolerance, identify candidate genes associated with cold tolerance, and validate selected candidate genes in transgenic plants with the CRISPR/Cas9 and overexpression systems. This information will be the basis for gene discovery and identification of cold-associated DNA markers, and ultimately rice germ plasm with improved ability to grow quickly for use in cultivar development programs to generate plants with desired traits through selective breeding.

“This is an exciting and well-deserved research opportunity for Dr. Schläppi to continue his work on cold-weather cultivation of rice,” said Dr. Heidi Bostic, dean of the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. “His innovative research has the potential to have benefits well past the quality or volume of rice harvested. There are ecological advantages of less water usage and pesticide application, as well as the opportunity to inspire cold-tolerance research on other crops.

“With a more cold-resistant rice, his research has the potential to help rice growers increase their yield and the quality of their harvest. This has far-reaching economic benefits, while also playing a role in addressing food scarcity in our country.”

Schläppi’s co-investigators are Dr. Georgia Eizenga and Dr. Jeremy Edwards, research geneticists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas.