For at least half of the world’s population, one food can be found at nearly every meal: rice. It’s what’s for dinner. (And breakfast. And lunch.)

At the start of this decade, rice provided nearly 20 percent of the world’s calories and 13 percent of the world’s protein.

Now, this small grain has a bigger job than ever: to withstand the demands of environmental changes and nourish a ballooning global population.

That’s why a team of U.S. researchers is using gene editing to develop resilient, high-yielding rice varieties—rice that grows better for a world population that’s growing bigger.

Many economically disadvantaged and resource-poor regions of the world rely on rice as a primary staple crop. Farmers in these areas need rice varieties that produce more using less—less fertilizer, less pesticide, less water, less land.

Producing more using less is the trademark of modern agriculture. Today’s precision plant breeding methods, like gene editing, have the potential to deliver varieties that can grow more food and grow in more places—even in soils and climates that normally wouldn’t support high-yielding rice.

About 40 percent of the world’s arable land is covered by acidic soils, which can inhibit plant growth and reduce the quality of a crop. On top of that, global population growth and climate change continue to diminish the amount of available farmland worldwide. Scientists may not have engineered a solution to make more land, but they can develop rice varieties that thrive on marginal soils, helping growers maximize production on the land that’s still available.

Researchers are working to identify the genes in rice that confer tolerance to acidic soils, along with resistance to pests and diseases. Once they are identified, those genes can be precisely edited into or out of a rice plant’s genome, producing plants that are more robust and resilient.

Bogdanove said gene editing is an improvement over past plant breeding methods. With traditional breeding, genetic recombination of parent plants’ DNA generates many random changes across the offspring’s genome. With gene editing, scientists are able to target exactly the genes that they want—knocking out a disease susceptibility gene or inserting a disease resistance gene from another rice plant, for example.

“Imagine you have a scrawny little rice plant,” Bogdanove said. “It’s super strong against diseases, but it’s got really bad yield. If we can find the exact genetic variation in that plant and bring only those differences into our high-yielding, delicious plants and improve their disease resistance, that’s a huge score. And genome editing allows us to do that with speed and accuracy.”

These achievements in genomics and plant breeding are advancing innovation—from the lab to the land and from the rice paddy to the plate.

Rice is a staple crop in many cultures, providing one-fifth of the world’s calories. High-yielding, disease resistant rice varieties that tolerate marginal soils would particularly benefit farmers in developing nations, who lack access to many agricultural inputs and production technologies. (Photo courtesy of the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)