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S’pore scientist wins Asean award for research on rice

SINGAPORE — Singapore might not be a rice-producing country, but that has not stopped it from contributing to research in the field.

S’pore scientist wins Asean award for research on rice
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SINGAPORE — Singapore might not be a rice-producing country, but that has not stopped it from contributing to research in the field.

Last week, Dr Yin Zhongchao, 50, was named the Outstanding Rice Scientist of Singapore at the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Rice Science and Technology Ambassadors Award.

To mark Asean’s 50th anniversary, the inaugural award was given to 15 rice scientists and farmers across the region at a ceremony in the Philippines.

Dr Yin, a senior principal investigator at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory who has been studying how to genetically improve rice grains, was the only winner from Singapore.

He said yesterday in an interview with TODAY: “Young Singaporeans may prefer bread or spaghetti, but rice is a staple, especially in Asia ... (As) a food safety concern, rice is important to us.”

Much of his research is underscored by the need to boost productivity in paddy fields, and to keep bacteria from destroying harvests.

Containing bacteria is important for farmers during seasonal monsoons or floods, which could cause bacteria to spread, Dr Yin said.

Without advancements in research and development, bacteria could kill up to 80 per cent of a harvest and affect the quality of the remaining crops.

Dr Yin, who is married with two sons, attained Singapore citizenship in 2006. He was born into a family of rice farmers in Anhui, China.

As a child, he learnt to transplant rice on paddy fields and harvest grains. Later, he pursued postgraduate education in plant genetics, focusing specifically on rice.

At the invitation of a former supervisor, he moved to Singapore to study bacterial diseases in rice after getting his PhD in 1997.

In 2005, Dr Yin and his research team published their findings on a cloned gene — Xa27 — in a scientific journal. Once introduced to rice grains, the gene builds resistance to bacterial blight, which causes the wilting of seedlings and drying of leaves.

The team modified another gene, Xa10, to keep pace with the evolution of bacteria, and in another breakthrough in 2015, they were able to use the modified gene to build resistance to 26 bacterial strains from various countries including China, Japan and Australia.

Dr Yin’s team also worked on the Xa10 and Xa27 genes to induce products that could trigger “cell death”.

“The bacteria is either killed by the death of the cell, which produces a lot of toxin, or by the loss of nutrition,” he said. “(So, it) cannot spread further to the surrounding healthy cell (of the rice grain).”

On his award, his employer Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory said that it “recognises Dr Yin’s outstanding scientific research in the field of understanding bacterial diseases in rice, as well as his positive contribution to rice productivity improvement at the Asean level”.

Last year, Dr Yin was part of the team that contributed seven varieties of Singaporean rice seeds to the Norwegian Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure seed facility.

Among them was a variety known as Temasek Rice, modified to be disease- and weather-resistant.

The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), which nominated him for the award, said Temasek Rice has favourable qualities such as high yields, and fungal and bacterial resistance.

“The development of Temasek Rice is a successful example of research benefiting people and the environment,” it told TODAY.

Dr Yin’s team also works closely with farmers in the region to develop sustainable farming practices to improve productivity and the livelihoods of the rice farming community, and their work would help to contribute to the long-term food security for the region, the AVA added.

Despite these breakthroughs in agricultural science, Dr Yin feels that his work is hardly done.

“I want to learn how bacteria infects rice plants and then grow new rice with greater resistance,” he said.

“As a scientist, we cannot say we’ve finished research in a certain field. In rice bacteria, there are still many questions that (have) to be answered.”

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