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To Find New Rice Species, Scientists Head to Remote Tropical Swamps

A remote peninsula in northern Australia beckons a rice research expedition

A juvenile crocodile in a Cape York peninsula river, the region where researchers recently looked for wild rice species (Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Crocodiles, snakes, dengue-carrying mosquitos, leeches and late-season cyclones are all the dangers that researchers face when venturing into the remote peninsula of Cape York in northern Australia. While these dangers face many a field expedition, these researchers were not actively in search of perilous species but rather hoping to find something much more innocuous: new varieties of rice, reports Lisa M. Hamilton for The California Sunday Magazine

Rice is a staple food for more than half the world’s population and climate change may make it even more important (corn doesn’t do as well with elevated carbon-dioxide levels). Yet the crop isn’t impervious to the effects of a changing climate — Hamilton points out that flooding threatens one-eighth of the world’s rice fields. Increases in salinity from rising seas, water scarcity, disease and weeds will affect fields in many other cases.

To keep rice a viable crop, researchers are looking into wild rice varieties for genetic diversity that might help one crop survive the salty intrusion of water in fields near a coast. One such researcher, Robert Henry of the University of Queenland led an expedition into the wilds of Cape York to search for the wildest wild rice.

Hamilton explains that such a trek is needed because even wild rice relatives have been genetically contaminated by cultivated crops. In most of Asia, wild Oryza has been partially tamed. Cape York, far from rice fields, offers a unique opportunity. 

Read the whole article at The California Sunday Magazine for descriptions of swamps and savannah during the dry season, oppressive heat, the list of gear needed to sustain researchers, journalist and guides, and the unexpected fervor that hunting for wild rice plants can cultivate.

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