UC Riverside plant geneticist elected to National Academy of Sciences

The National Academy of Science (NAS) has granted membership to University of California, Riverside genetics professor, Julia Bailey-Serres, in recognition of her research on the flood tolerance of rice plants.

In 2011, Bailey-Serres, alongside fellow researchers from UC Riverside, UC Davis and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, successfully identified a gene, SUB1A, which allows certain varieties of rice to survive when completely submerged in water.

“My group’s role focused on discovering about how that (SUB1A) and the related genes are regulated,” Bailey-Serres said. “We also uncovered how the SUB1A gene works in the plant to enable survival of a long time (two weeks or more) underwater: the mechanism of function. It turns out that the gene allows the plant to more slowly consume its energy reserves and protects it during the process of de-submergence, so that shoots can regrow.”

In addition, rice crops submerged in water face less competition from weeds and require less herbicide, which will reduce labor costs and environmental harm.

Rice is a vital staple food globally, second to corn, and a successful harvest can often demarcate the line between survival and starvation in many impoverished areas. A quarter of the world’s rice crop is cultivated in areas that are prone to seasonal flooding. The identification and exploitation of this characteristic will provide food security for some of the most vulnerable communities.

The International Rice Institute was quick to apply this research. Between five and 10 million farmers in nations throughout South and Southeast Asia are cultivating rice crops that express this gene.

“These new rice cultivars perform very similarly — really indistinguishably — from the same varieties with the SUB1A gene,” said Bailey-Serres.

As for her future endeavors, Bailey-Serres intends to continue investigating how plants deal with too little oxygen as a result of flooding, something that has captured her interest for most of her career.

“We are working on the mechanism of function of other genes important to flooding tolerance in rice,” Bailey-Serres said. “One project is to understand how SUB1A and the other genes work together or not. We are also very interested in the evolutionary conservation of the pathways that are important for flooding tolerance across plant species.”

“The call from NAS members woke me up, I went from surprised, to honored, to delighted pretty quickly,” Bailey-Serres said when asked about her initial feelings upon being elected. “UCR already had three women in the NAS and I am very happy to be the fourth. I am looking forward to being involved in NAS activities.”

Established in 1863 by an Act of Congress, the NAS is a private, nonprofit organization that is a part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. New members are elected annually by current members based on their continuing achievements in original research. Bailey-Serres is the seventh faculty member from UC Riverside to attain membership in the organization.

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