AgriFutures Rice Program researcher spotlight: Ricky Vinarao

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PhD candidate Ricky Vinarao has almost a decade’s experience working in rice research from biotic stress resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, and molecular characterisation of elite genotypes. In 2019 Ricky successfully applied for a scholarship at the University of Queensland to complete his PhD under the supervision of Dr Jaquie Mitchell focusing on aerobic rice production systems (AP).

Ricky’s research aims to show the advantages of improved root system architecture (narrower and deeper roots), through physiological characterisation and identification of key traits.

The genomic regions that control root traits and cold tolerance have been identified as key influencers in rice breeding for AP. This research will develop molecular markers that can be used for precise introgression into elite germplasm by the breeding program.

Why is this research project important?

With water for agricultural production becoming more limited, the challenge now is to increase food and agricultural productivity while adapting to and mitigating the effects of this declining resource.

While it’s early days, and knowledge is still limited, AP systems are a promising alternative to traditional flooded culture, using less water, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and require less labour units.

Traditionally, rice is grown in permanent water (PW; flooded) systems. As such, most of the research into physiological traits and genomic regions associated with key traits, has been conducted in PW environments.

A greater understanding of key AP adaptation traits including improved root system architecture (narrow, deep roots), cold tolerance, and associated genomic regions is needed to advance our understanding and potential to exploit AP systems as a more sustainable rice production method.

This project seeks to unravel key AP adaptation traits through the utilisation of multiple approaches, genomics and physiological techniques. Understanding the key traits and their relationship with grain yield will help increase the water productivity of rice and help stabilise yields across different environmental conditions. Identification of genomic regions and the development of markers will pave the way for the potential introgression of stable and environment-specific high value genes/loci into breeding programs for AP systems.

Why did you get involved in the project?

Since 2012, I have been involved in rice research across several disciplines including biotic stress resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, and molecular characterisation of elite genotypes. I wanted to continue to work in the rice industry while undertaking my PhD research, so when the opportunity became available to apply for a scholarship at the University of Queensland under the supervision of Dr Jaquie Mitchell, I submitted my application. With Australia being the world leader in yield and water use efficiency research, I am excited to work with Dr Mitchell and her team, investigating AP systems.

How will this research benefit the rice industry? Are there any learnings beyond this industry?

Development and characterisation of elite breeding lines adapted to AP systems is key to increasing rice water productivity. This will ensure Australian rice growers have access to high yielding varieties with significantly lower water inputs, while maintaining grain yield and income. In addition, varieties adapted to AP conditions adjust to soil moisture fluctuations and cool air temperatures, translating to yield stability across different environments.

The development of molecular markers associated with identified key traits, will allow the seamless introgression of the genomic regions into different genetic backgrounds and varieties. The utilisation of a marker system that has a high throughput and is cost effective, will ensure the inclusion of the traits in existing breeding programs for AP environments.

Preliminary results show a stable genomic region associated with narrower root cone angle. Subsequent identification of the gene may also see it used in other crop species. Orthologous genes in other crop species will also be identified and tested for their ability to produce narrower, deeper rooting systems.

What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?

During my early professional years, I always heard ‘there is no substitute for hard work’. In agriculture, this can also translate to a more literal meaning as the work usually involves physical labor. Over the years I have also come to realise this means putting in a consistent effort and continuing to ‘chip away’ at the work each day. As we get engrossed with work, we should also remember why we work in agriculture; to give growers the improved tools for them to adapt to the ever-changing climate.

What have you learned about your industry from the growers/producers you have been involved with?

In Australia, development of AP adapted rice means more dollars in grower’s pockets and protection from yield reductions. In the Philippines, where I come from and where most growers are smallholders or subsistence farmers, a yield advantage can mean food on the table and surplus grain that can be sold at market. Ultimately, this work should empower farmers to become more competitive and give them a chance at a better life.

For more about the AgriFutures Rice Program and its projects visit agrifutures.com.au/rice

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