Swiss uncover fungus that speeds up rice growth

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Researchers at a Swiss university said Thursday that they have uncovered a microscopic fungus that is able to increase the speed of rice growth by five times.

In a study published by Switzerland's University of Lausanne, researchers claimed that the fungus mycorrhiza would not only cut the use of phosphate fertilizers, it was also "completely natural" or GM-free.

It could be commercialised and used in large-scale farming in two to five years, said the researchers.

The team uncovered the function of the super fungus after four years of experiments on twenty different samples of its spores.

Results showed however that while some of these spores led to slower growth of rice, in two of the samples, rice growth was accelerated by five times.

Caroline Angelard, who is among researchers said that the mycorrhiza was particular as it produced spores that were genetically different.

Depending on their genetic makeup, these spores in turn had a different impact on rice growth.

However, the researcher added that it was still unclear how the spores helped to speed up rice growth.

"We still have to study how this symbiosis between the fungus and the rice plant led in some conditions to the accelerated growth of the rice plant," Angelard told AFP.

Ian Sanders, who led the research, pointed out that the advantage of using the fungus to boost rice growth was that it is "completely natural."

"No new gene had been introduced in the plant and it has nothing to do with genetically modifying the plant," he said in a statement.

The fungus almost invisible to the naked eye also has another advantage for cultivators as threadlike elements --- called hypha -- allow for a symbiosis with the rice plant, ensuring the transportation of nutrients and minerals like phosphates.

It could therefore help to cut the usage of phosphate fertilizers and therefore reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture.

The researchers have also undertaken studies on potatoes in Colombia, and experiments are expected in 2011 on tapioca.

© 2010 AFP

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