Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
As part of the largest rice-producing state economy in the U.S., Arkansas rice producers are likely familiar with straighthead disorder, one of the most damaging rice diseases that can drastically reduce grain yields year-to-year, Dr. Bihu Huang, professor of agriculture at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said. To offset the economic risks for rice farmers, faculty and student researchers at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences are working on hybrid varieties of rice for resistance to the disease, which costs Arkansas farmers $27 million and 74 million cubic meters of water annually.
“Straighthead is a non-fungal disease characterized by the sterility of the floral parts of a rice plant,” Dr. Huang said. “The disease’s name is derived from the appearance of the flowering parts of the diseased rice, which remain straight when sterile and devoid of the weight of grain.”
The disease, first reported in Arkansas in the early 1900s, is considered a threat to farmers because it can reduce grain yield to practically nothing, she said. Straighthead can occur every year, and Arkansas farmers have reported higher prevalence of the disease in recent years.
“A viable solution to the problem is introducing resistant genes into hybrid rice, which has a 20 percent yield advantage over traditional rice,” Dr. Huang said. “This could vastly reduce the amount of money and water used for the prevention of the disease. UAPB is working to improve the disease resistance in hybrid rice varieties to help ensure greater yields in Arkansas.”
During the course of her research in rice breeding, Dr. Huang and a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers utilized various rice germplasms from the U.S. Department of Agriculture world rice collection. The varieties she used are selected based on their relevance to field conditions in Arkansas.
Dr. Huang said UAPB’s involvement in rice research in Arkansas works to fulfill the objective of the Department of Agriculture to strengthen economic development in Arkansas by developing new and innovative research applicable to farming systems in southeastern Arkansas. Additionally, it enables UAPB to expand its capacity to conduct research in the area of food production and support its research mission to enhance the quality of life for diverse and limited-resource audiences.
The research in rice breeding has provided involved, hands-on research opportunities for five graduate and three undergraduate students at UAPB, Dr. Huang said. In addition to contributing to research on campus, the students collaborated with and received training from scientists at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center and University of Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart and the Texas A&M University AgriLife Research and Extension Center.
“Research into timely topics with real-world applications and collaboration with the nation’s leading scientists has generated student interest in the Arkansas rice industry and provided invaluable training for future careers in agriculture,” Dr. Huang said. “UAPB’s participation in research so relevant to one of our state’s strongest industries will increase the ethnic, racial and gender diversity of the nation’s agricultural, scientific and professional expertise base.”