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Rice: How the Most Genetically Versatile Grain Conquered the World

Maywa Montenegro photo

Rice is a quiet champion, the unrecognized catalyst of civilization, and now, an exciting keyhole into genetics

In a low-wet valley in southern China some 9,000 years ago a handful nomadic farmers saved the seeds of a wild grain they normally gathered as food. The next year they planted the seeds in the ground on purpose; from that day forth rice has been an essential part of human subsistence. In a mutually beneficially relationship with man, rice has enjoyed the genetic diversification of centuries of farmers’ artificial selection while man has thrived on the nutrition packed in its starchy innards.

The ancient science of agriculture–proto genetic engineering–has given rise to over 80,000 different varieties of rice around the world, and now modern science is plumbing the depths of the rice genome for insight into the evolutionary history of the other grass species.

In between the first deliberate planting of rice and the 2002 announcement of a completed genetic sequence, rice has slowly spread across the planet, accompanying human populations wherever they settled. And while new rice varieties were constantly being bred to thrive in new environments, rice bred a new type of man–one who created elaborate political structures and social hierarchies, and as a result, was free to turn his energies from farm labor to exercises of the intellect.

For almost half of the worlds’ people, rice is necessary part of life, providing most of the calories they need to survive. In much of Asia, this longtime dependence on rice has led to the deification of rice and in many instances, elaborate rituals, celebrations, and folklore involving rice. For all of humanity, however, rice is a quiet champion, the unrecognized catalyst of civilization, and now, an exciting keyhole into genetics, the organization of life at the molecular level.


Maywa Montenegro Written by Maywa Montenegro