Maurice Ku, Washington State University botanist and professor of biological sciences, will be one of 50 foreign experts traveling to Beijing this month to receive that government’s premiere annual award for outstanding contributions to China’s economic and social progress.

Ku was named a recipient of the Chinese government’s National Friendship Award for his work in developing a strain of rice with increased yields of up to 35 percent. The genetically altered plants, which are currently being grown in field trials in China and other Asian countries, could eventually provide a much-needed boost in food supply for the world’s rapidly growing population.

Initiated in 1991, the Chinese government’s Friendship Award is conferred annually in recognition of the contributions to national progress made by a select group of foreign experts. Recipients typically represent a wide variety of scientific and other technical disciplines
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Along with nearly half the world’s population, China relies heavily on rice as a food staple. Despite shrinking agricultural land and water supplies, estimates suggest nearly 7 million additional tons of rice are required each year to feed a rapidly growing world population. This represents an increase of 10 percent annually.

Ku will visit Beijing from Sept. 25 through Oct. 1 to receive the award in ceremonies scheduled to coincide with China’s National Day, a 5-day observance of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. The Friendship Award ceremony is expected to conclude with a meeting between the recipients and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Ku, who began working on genetic modifications of rice to increase yields as a visiting professor at Nagoya University in 1995, said field trials in China and Korea over the past several years have consistently shown the new rice strain produces a 10 to 35 percent increase in grain.

Working initially with Japanese colleagues, Ku created the new rice strain by inserting three photosynthesis genes from maize (corn). The technique allows the rice to overcome its natural inefficiency of photosynthesis, which is the process by which most green plants use sunlight to manufacture sugars from carbon dioxide (CO2) and water.

Most crop species, including rice, belong to a category of plants called C3, whose photosynthesis is limited by the current level of atmospheric CO2. The photosynthesis machinery of such crops evolved at a time when the atmosphere was much richer in CO2 and when the leakage of CO2 through photorespiration was not a hindrance to productivity.

Approximately five percent of the world’s flowering plants, however, have developed a more efficient means of photosynthesis whereby they concentrate CO2 with a sort of biochemical pump or turbocharger – the C4 pathway. Through a complex process, the initial carbon storage molecules in C4 plants acquire an extra carbon atom, as compared to a 3-carbon compound in C3 plants.

C4 plants evolved much more recently, adapting to increasingly lower CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The current level of CO2 was reached about 20 million years ago.

C4 plants are also more tolerant of drought and heat. Not surprisingly, many weed species are C4, as are a few crop plants such as maize and sugarcane.

Recreating C4 photosynthesis in other crop plants is something of the Holy Grail of crop genetic engineering, according to Ku.

Although Ku said the Chinese field trials have shown the new rice strain to be “pretty consistent” in achieving a 10 to 35 percent increase in rice crop yields, the strain has yet to be used in large-scale production there.

“We have been engaged in proof of concept work to show the beneficial effects,” he said of the technology. “Our next target is to introduce the technology on a larger scale in order to convince the farmers.”

Ku also believes the technology used to improve the rice yields can be applied to other crops such as wheat, barley and potatoes.

Chinese news sources earlier this year reported that China envisions having at least one-third of the country’s total rice paddies planted with strains of what the news media there has called “super rice” within five years. Rice has remained a staple food for more than 60 percent of China‘s population and accounts for 40 percent of that country’s total cereals consumption.

Ku is also a member of the WSU Center for Integrated Biotechnology, where he serves as director of the plant transformation core facility. In his work with Chinese scientists, he is considered a senior member of the team, with expertise that is critical to the success of the project.

In addition to his applied research in the genetic modification of rice and other plants, Ku is engaged in basic research in plant photosynthesis.