The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave an $11 million grant to a Philippine-led global consortium of experts to develop a highly efficient form of photosynthesis in rice plants known as C4.
Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which leads the consortium aptly called C4 Rice Consortium, said in a statement that the project involves re-engineering photosynthesis in rice.
"As a result of research being conducted by this group, rice plants that can produce 50 percent more grain using less fertilizer and less water are a step closer to reality," IRRI said.
The Gates foundation is set to release the grant money over three years, although IRRI said the research will take a decade or more to complete.
IRRI said that about half of the world's population consumes rice as a staple cereal, so boosting its productivity is crucial to achieving long-term food security.
More than a billion people worldwide presently live on less than a dollar a day and nearly one billion live in hunger.
Over the next 50 years, the population of the world is expected to increase by about 50 percent and water scarcity will grow.
"IRRI is leading the effort to achieve a major increase in global rice production by using modern molecular tools to develop a more efficient and higher-yielding form of rice," it said.
Photosynthesis, the process by which plants use solar energy to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into the carbohydrates required for growth, is not the same for all plants. Some species, including rice, have a mode of photosynthesis (known as C3) in which the capture of carbon dioxide is relatively inefficient. Other plants, such as maize and sorghum, have evolved a much more efficient form of photosynthesis known as C4.
According to IRRI scientist and project leader John Sheehy, in tropical climates the efficiency of solar energy conversion of crops using so-called C4 photosynthesis is about 50 percent higher than that of C3 crops.
Given the demands from an increasing population, combined with less available land and water, adequate future supplies of rice will need to come in large part through substantial yield boosts and more efficient use of crop inputs.
Sheehy said converting the photosynthesis of rice would increase yields by 50 percent.
He added that C4 rice would also use water twice as efficiently.
In developing tropical countries, where billions of poor people rely on rice as their staple food, "The benefits of such an improvement in the face of increasing world population, increasing food prices, and decreasing natural resources would be immense," he said.
The C4 Rice Consortium includes molecular biologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, and mathematicians, representing leading research organizations in various continents.
Members include Yale, Cornell, Florida, and Washington State universities in the United States; Oxford, Cambridge, Dundee, Nottingham, and Sheffield universities in Britain; the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australian National University, and James Cook University in Australia; Heinrich Heine University and the Institute for Biology in Germany; Jiangsu Academy in China; the University of Toronto in Canada; and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.