In the early 1980s the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) undertook an ambitious rice program that in many ways represented a return to its historical roots in molecular biology. RF-supported basic research had enabled the emergence of molecular biology as a field in the 1930s and 1940s. But as industry and government began funding such research, the RF shifted its support to agricultural development, creating innovations that eventually fueled the “Green Revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the 1980s, RF-initiated programs in food production and distribution had become largely self-sufficient or were supported by a host of other agencies. Meanwhile, researchers in molecular biology were on the verge of significant breakthroughs in genomic mapping, and the RF now sought to capitalize on technologies that might help solve more intricate problems of nutritional content. The International Program in Rice Biotechnology (IPRB), launched in 1984, reinvigorated RF support of biological research.
Agriculture’s Next Steps
In 1981 the Foundation undertook an extensive evaluation of its agricultural commitments. The external review team concluded that the time was right for the RF to return to supporting research and recommended that it cultivate emerging discoveries of molecular biology in hopes of applying them to plant breeding.
In 1984 the Trustees approved a comprehensive program on rice projected to last 10 to 15 years. Rice was selected because it served as a dietary staple for a large part of the world. But rice, in the world of plant molecular biology, was not well understood. At the time, no DNA markers or maps had been identified or created and there was no experimental evidence that rice could be transformed with novel genes.
The Return to Research
The RF stimulated research through strategically placed grants, much as it had for molecular biology, in some cases convincing reluctant but especially well-qualified laboratories to take on rice research. Major grants were made to institutions including Cornell University, Stanford University, Purdue University, the State University of Ghent in Belgium and the State University of Leiden in the Netherlands. By 1988 a DNA map was achieved, and by 1990 the first experimental genetic transformation had been accomplished.
Encouraged by its quick success, the IPRB turned to the ambitious goal of transferring these new technologies to rice researchers worldwide, especially in rice-consuming countries. By the 1990s rice became the model plant for cereal genomic research, and full-scale genome-sequencing projects were undertaken in Japan and the United States.
Building an International Infrastructure
Ultimately, the Rockefeller Foundation sought to enable farmers to produce greater supplies of more nutritious food while minimizing environmental damage. Funding targeted the creation of sufficient biotechnology capacity in rice-dependent countries, most of which remained underdeveloped. Research projects tested how the tools of biotechnology could be applied to varieties of tropical rice. The Foundation also needed to understand the consequences of agricultural change in Asia in order to foster the adoption of new technologies.
The RF approach to rice biotechnology was informed by decades of experience in agricultural development. Its central strategy encouraged international collaboration and focused on using research as an opportunity for training. Through graduate, dissertation, and post-doctoral fellowships, the RF built a network of highly trained experts who continued to share information and conduct joint research even after their education was completed. It further fostered knowledge transfer through international summits and conferences.
RF financial support, coupled with this expanding cohort of experienced researchers, strengthened a core group of institutional centers. The RF placed field staff in Asian countries to build technical and human resource capacity so that new techniques in plant breeding, invented in predominantly Western institutions, could be applied on the ground in rice-consuming nations.
The IPRB supported information exchange through an academic journal, the Rice Biotechnology Quarterly, and the publication and circulation of theses, reprints, books and patents. Finally, the IRBP initiated relationships with national agencies that could eventually assume responsibility for the funding and management of rice research.
The IPRB can claim many accomplishments. Over 700 scientists from approximately 30 countries participated in the program by the time it concluded in 2000. The identification of genes that provided immunity from blight enabled the engineering of blight-resistant rice. “Golden rice,” a genetically modified hybrid that introduces Vitamin A into the calorie-filled but otherwise nutrient-lacking grain offers better nutrition to millions.
But perhaps the most remarkable contribution of the program was that rice went from being a marginal interest in plant molecular biology to its very cornerstone, all in the space of only 17 years. In 1995 IPRB research predicted that rice was the “model cereal” for genomic research. All major cereal crop genomes can be represented by the 19 segments found in the rice genome. Since that discovery, rice-centered research has accelerated, and the IPRB legacy continues today with the Asian Rice Biotechnology Network, sponsored by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), as well as national programs in China, Thailand, India and the Philippines.