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A new high-tech greenhouse at the Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart, Ark., will get new varieties into growers’ hands faster and also quicken research. Photo courtesy of Ehsan Shakiba.

Arkansas rice research makes a big leap forward

New greenhouse provides new avenues of study

A new, technologically top-notch greenhouse recently opened at the Rice Research and Extension Center (RREC) in Stuttgart, Ark. The greenhouse was opened in a bid to improve rice research efforts and provide producers with new varieties much faster.

Among those responsible for, and using, the new facility is Dr. Ehsan Shakiba. Since 2015, Shakiba has worked at the center as an assistant professor, rice breeder and geneticist. His specialty is developing hybrid cultivars.

In late August, Shakiba spoke with Delta Farm Press about the possibilities the greenhouse provides for research, the need for new angles of study and how the facility will condense the amount of time needed to provide the rice community with answers to pressing questions. Among his comments:

How will the new greenhouse fold into your work?

“We wanted a multipurpose greenhouse so we can develop and evaluate hybrid parental lines under controlled conditions and produce seeds during the winter. For example, during the winter, we can grow our plants in the greenhouse. Maybe we don’t have much seed to send to a winter nursery, but we can grow what we have here and then gather more seed.

“There are two systems for hybrid rice production: a three-line system and a two-line system. We are working on both systems. Presently, our focus is on developing male sterile lines for the two-line system.

“In hybrid production, in a two-line system, we’re working with a male sterile that is specific to temperature. If the temperature (is at a certain point) — say, 85 degrees — the plant can be sterile. When the temperature is below that threshold, the seed will be fertile.

“It’s usually very difficult to do a seed increase outside because of the environmental changes. But if we’re going to capitalize, especially in the early stages of line development and ensure the plants are fertile, the best place to test plants is the greenhouse.

“Meanwhile, when developing populations, we pick our plants, bring them to the greenhouse, and make a cross. That ensures no outcrossing will happen.”

On the new dynamic with winter nurseries in light of the new greenhouse…

“At the earliest stages of development, F1 or F2, there is usually very little seed available to send to winter nurseries. That seed also requires special care. Therefore, we prefer to germinate what seed we have on the station.

“When we have more seed available, at F3 or F4, we’ll send it to a winter nursery. But at the earliest stages — and it doesn’t matter if you’re working with a hybrid or other type of rice — the best place to do the seed increase and evaluate your lines based on molecular studies is the greenhouse.

“Developing new rice varieties is different than other crops in that yield isn’t the only thing to look for. Quality is very important. Just because a line yields well, it may not have good eating quality and will go nowhere.

“So, we have to make sure the plant has proper quality. To do that, the best thing is to grow the plants in the greenhouse, collect leaf samples from each single plant and take them to our molecular genetic lab. There, we analyze each sample via a set of molecular markers to see if the plant has the genes related to the desirable agronomic traits.

“If the line has those genes, we can go ahead and develop it. If a line doesn’t have a gene associated with ... agronomic traits such as eating quality and disease resistance, it can be eliminated. We only choose the best ones.”

On the physical layout of the greenhouse…

“This greenhouse is very unique for us. When we got the budget to build it, we did our homework. We — me, Dr. Glenn Bathke (RREC project director) and Dr. Nathan McKinney (at the time, interim director at the RREC) — traveled to different states and checked greenhouses. We asked those working there, ‘If you were to build this greenhouse again, what would you change?’ They told us the advantages and disadvantages. We took all that information together and then came up with exactly what would work best for us.

“It’s very important everyone knows the greenhouse is a result of support from the checkoff funds and the Arkansas Rice Promotion Board.

“We can control the heating, the humidity, the CO2, the temperature. We also have sensors attached to a computer and it can control all environments in the greenhouse. It can also be programmed to what we desire for study.

“There are three systems for controlling temperature. If temperatures are very hot, we can use a curtain on the ceiling to control light.

“When the temperature or humidity changes, for example, the greenhouse signals that to the computer. The computer then tells us immediately what is going on and can turn on the cooling system or release water through sprinklers.

“Another thing our system has is a place for flash drives. That way we can collect data for 24 hours on what’s happening in the greenhouse. We can also receive information over our telephones telling us something is wrong and we can come fix it quickly.

“The greenhouse facility also has two walk-in growth chambers. These growth chambers are presently being used for high nighttime temperature project. We can use the large size growth chambers to evaluate number of rice variety at the same time in control conditions.”

Using this new facility, are you expecting to team up with other facilities interested in your research — maybe, say, your high nighttime temperature work?

“Yes. Our research station is already collaborating with others outside the state and also internationally. We’d welcome more of that type of research.”

As mentioned previously, “the breeding programs (are conducting) a high nighttime temperature project. High nighttime temperature stress has become an issue in Arkansas rice production. When the temperature rises during seed developing stage, it affects seed quality by increasing chalk in seeds.

“This is a collaborative study between geneticists, plant breeders, and a plant physiologist at the RREC. Currently, our scientists are evaluating more than 70 rice verities under control conditions in the greenhouse and growth chambers to identify tolerant varieties to this stress. Then, we will identify genes associated with high nighttime temperature stress via advanced molecular techniques. The results can be used for developing new rice lines that tolerant to such stress.

“Work in the high nighttime temperatures is important and this greenhouse provides enough controls so a researcher can gain better data more quickly.”

On more research…

“Right now, our rice breeding program is looking at long-grain, medium-grain and hybrids. We may be working on different projects but feel we’re part of the same team.

“We’re doing molecular studies to identify genes associated with yield. We’re evaluating the threshold of the temperature for the male sterile.

“Most importantly, in the high nighttime study we’re looking at the effects on seed quality. We want to know how best to address the issue.”

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