Scientists Achieve Success in Safeguarding Jumli Marsi Rice from Disease

Discover how scientists triumphantly safeguarded Jumli Marsi rice from disease, employing genetic modifications for resilience. This breakthrough preserves Nepal's cultural and nutritional treasure, securing a future for this Himalayan delicacy while countering the challenges of changing climate patterns.

Safeguarding Jumli Marsi Rice

In a significant breakthrough, scientists have successfully modified the genetic traits of Nepal’s renowned Raithane rice, Jumli Marsi, to confer disease resistance. This achievement marks a crucial milestone in enhancing rice production. Beginning around 2005, the cultivation of Jumli Marsi rice faced a considerable decline of over 25 per cent due to the onslaught of blast disease. This disease predominantly affected the rice grown in the elevated Himalayan regions of Jumla and Humla.

A collaborative effort between agricultural scientists from Nepal and the United Kingdom has yielded three distinct disease-resistant seed variants. These were developed by incorporating genetic attributes from a species named IR-64, which harbours blast-resistant genes, commonly known as Maruwa disease. This genetic infusion was skillfully integrated into Jumli Marsi rice through extensive research and testing spanning nearly fifteen years.

The implications of this success are momentous. Jumla, a region where half of the total paddy area—approximately 1,400 hectares—is dedicated to Marsi paddy cultivation, stands to gain substantially from this scientific advancement. The Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) embarked on a mission to find a solution as early as 2005 due to the devastating effects of blast disease, which led to a staggering 26 per cent crop loss and inflicted considerable harm on local farmers.

Thorough evaluations of rice varieties across Nepal revealed that IR-64, a product of the International Rice Crops Research Institute (IRI), possessed blast resistance and was well-suited for cultivation in the Himalayan terrain. Leveraging the ‘molecular marking method,’ Reshababu Amgai, a senior scientist at NARC, successfully transplanted this genetic resilience from IR-64 into Jumli Marsi. The innovative technology known as Caspar was employed in this process—the first application of this technique in South Asia. Amgai, who also helms NARC’s National Biotechnology Research Center, emphasized that only three out of numerous varieties developed in the course of research gained popularity among farmers.

This groundbreaking research was conducted collaboratively by NARC, Bangor University in Wales, and LGC Genomics in London—pioneers of the Caspar technology. The diligent efforts at the National Biotechnology Research Center in Khumaltar spanned over a decade, ultimately leading to the creation of blast-resistant variants of Jumli Marsi. The varieties were then subjected to rigorous testing at the Agricultural Research Center in Jumla for four years before their release for farming.

These newly developed disease-resistant seeds were introduced to the high-altitude Himalayan region only after thorough verification, allowing farmers to adopt the technology confidently. Commencing with the testing of 5,000 species in Khumaltar, 42 were selected for further evaluation in Jumla. Subsequently, six proved successful during farm trials, paving the way for expanded seed production.

The adoption of these advancements has led to promising outcomes, with currently three blast-resistant improved Jumli Marsi variants undergoing field trials on rice farms. Several agricultural cooperatives have expressed intent to distribute these seeds to farmers, thus further propelling the progress in safeguarding this vital crop.

The fundamental process employed by scientists involved extracting DNA from the progeny produced by crossbreeding the IR-64 and Jumli Marsi breeds. This approach ensured the preservation of Jumli Marsi’s inherent nutritional and sensory characteristics. Notably, these efforts have successfully eradicated susceptibility to blast disease while maintaining the rice’s rich nutritional content and distinct flavour.

Jumli Marsi rice is held in high esteem due to its cultural, religious, and nutritional significance. Thriving at elevations unparalleled by other rice varieties in Nepal, Jumli Marsi flourishes in the expansive Chumchaur region situated at 2,850 meters within the Patarasi Rural Municipality of Jumla. Its unique appeal lies in the preference for a blend of white-red rice complemented by brown-black grains. Renowned for its substantial fibre, calcium, and protein content, this rice variety is also prized for its abundance of micronutrients and antioxidants.

Jan Whitcomb, an Emeritus Professor at Bangor University’s School of Natural Sciences, lauds the achievement as a significant advancement in the preservation of Jumli Marsi in Nepal. Collaborating with Nepali crop breeding expert Reshababu Amgai, their research spanned a remarkable 13 years. Whitcomb emphasized that Jumli Marsi marks the first instance of utilizing ‘genetic markers’ in the scientific production of seeds, accomplished in partnership with local farmers.

As climate change poses challenges, the successful cultivation of Jumli Marsi is pivotal. The Himalayan topography poses unique climatic demands, requiring temperatures above 18 degrees Celsius for rice germination. These high-altitude regions, such as Jumla, which belong to the temperate zone, exhibit cold temperatures. However, rice cultivation in these regions is optimized to avoid temperatures below 18 degrees Celsius during flowering. This resilience to cold conditions has enabled Jumli Marsi to thrive in the face of changing climate patterns.

The cultivation of paddy in regions like Jumla is predominantly reliant on irrigation, with rivers like Tila and Hima playing a pivotal role. While the warming climate has not yet significantly impacted rice production, the potential reduction in river water flow poses an impending challenge. Amgai speculates that if these rivers were to dry up, agricultural practices would be severely hampered.

As research continues to evolve, the success of protecting Jumli Marsi rice from disease stands as a testament to the combined efforts of scientists, agricultural experts, and farmers. This achievement ensures the continued availability of this culturally significant and nutritionally valuable rice variety, allowing communities in Nepal to thrive in the face of adversity.

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