History of the C4 Rice Project

The C4 Rice Project was first conceived by John Sheehy, a plant physiologist who was Head of the Applied Photosynthesis Group at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) from 1995 to 2009. In 1999, John organized an IRRI workshop to discuss whether the project was feasible. The meeting concluded that the methods and technology available at the time were inadequate to deliver the scientific objectives (meeting report here). Roll the clock forward to 2006, however, and a repeat workshop organized by Sheehy generated momentum (meeting report here). A combination of factors galvanized immediate and collective action. First, Bob Ziegler as recently appointed Director General at IRRI was so convinced of the importance of the project that it was embedded in IRRI’s 2007-2015 Strategic Plan; IRRI’s Institutional support for such a long-term and ambitious project was a crucial factor in the subsequent search for financial backing. Second, anticipated step-changes in DNA sequencing and rice transformation technologies fuelled an optimistic view of the scientific challenges that lay ahead. Finally, many of the C4 experts present at the workshop were due to retire within ten years, leaving a potential skills vacuum. Given that interest in C4 photosynthesis research had dwindled dramatically in the 1990s, a major resurgence was needed to attract young researchers back into the field.

Early days in the field at IRRI – April 2009. From left to right: Peter Mitchell, Susanne von Caemmerer, Gerry Edwards, Jacque Dionora, Bob Furbank, John Sheehy, Bob Ziegler.

In 2008, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a grant to IRRI to fund C4 rice research. Phase I and Phase II of the project were heavily dependent on large-scale genetic screening of rice plants and were led first by John Sheehy, and then by Paul Quick from IRRI. Phase III had a slightly different focus, with an emphasis on integrated ‘systems’ and ‘synthetic’ approaches to plant biology. Phase III ran from 2015-2019 and was co-ordinated by Jane Langdale at the University of Oxford, while IRRI retained a focus on C4 rice in the context of its CGIAR research programs. Advances in Phase III were sufficient to secure funding for a fourth phase that aims to develop a prototype for C4 metabolism. The foundation awarded a $15 million grant to the University of Oxford  for Phase IV.