AsianScientist (May. 25, 2019) – Professor Yuan Longping, hailed for cultivating the world’s first high-yield hybrid rice varieties and saving countless lives from famine, died on May 22, 2021, in Changsha, China. He was 90 years old.
In the early 1970s, Yuan introduced the first hybrid strains of rice, so called for being crossbred from two genetically distinct parent varieties. The hybrid rice he developed recorded an annual yield that was 20 percent higher than conventional varieties—enough to feed an extra 70 million people a year at a time when China was undergoing widespread famine.
For alleviating hunger and poverty in China—as well as large swathes of Asia and Africa—Yuan earned the epithet of the country’s “Father of Hybrid Rice.” Currently, a fifth of all rice grown worldwide comes from the hybrid rice first cultivated by Yuan.
“Today, we mourn the passing of a true food hero. Chinese scientist Yuan Longping saved millions of people from hunger by developing the first hybrid rice strains,” said the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) on Twitter. “He passed away today at 90 (due to illness) but his legacy and his mission to end hunger lives on.”
The chaotic early years
Yuan was born on September 7, 1930, in Beijing to a family of intellectuals. His mother, Hua Jing, and father, Yuan Xinglie, were both teachers. In a memoir published in 2010, Yuan credited his mother, who taught English, for his lifelong inclination for learning.
“She was an educated woman at a time when they were uncommon,” he wrote. “From early on, I came under her uplifting influence.”
Amid the early years of the Chinese Communist Party’s rise, Yuan came of age, deciding to study agricultural science with a specialization in crop genetics at what is now known as Southwest University. Back then, two distinct theories of heredity were taught in China, with the first theory revolving around the chromosomal basis of inheritance espoused by Gregor Mendel and T. H. Morgan.
The other theory, advanced by Soviet scientists Ivan Vladimirovich Michruin and Trofim Lysenko, stated that genes could be directly remade in response to environmental pressures, with these changes inherited by their offspring.
At the time, the Chinese government leaned more towards the Soviet Union’s doctrines, leading Yuan to secretly study the work of Mendel, Morgan and other leading geneticists outside class. After graduating in 1953, Yuan started teaching at an agricultural school in Hunan Province.
By the late 1950s, failed crop experiments had plunged China into an unprecedented famine, with estimates placing the death toll at around 45 million deaths. Every day, Yuan was bombarded by massive scenes of starvation, strengthening his resolve to find novel ways to create more productive crops.
From food deficiency to food security
Initially experimenting with sweet potato and wheat, Yuan soon dedicated the rest of his research career to studying rice, which was a staple food in Chinese cuisine. In the mid-20th century, the prevailing notion was that rice was a self-pollinating crop, with little possibility for hybridization.
But in a stroke of serendipity, Yuan found a natural hybrid rice plant in 1964, with plumper grains than ordinary ones—inspiring him and his colleagues to embark on their own experiments to cultivate a stable and high-yielding hybrid species over the next nine years.
At first, Yuan and his team started out by using mutated male-sterile grains. However, they were unable to ensure the complete sterility of the grains, leading them to search for wild varieties in remote areas of China that they could instead crossbreed with cultivated rice.
In 1970, they found a wild rice species they called “Wild Abortive,” that eventually became the foundation of a successful three-line hybrid rice breeding system in 1973 with 20 percent more yields.
By 1976, mass cultivation of the hybrid rice had begun, enabling the nation to feed one-fifth of the world’s population using less than nine percent of its arable land. Yuan’s advancements eventually paved the way for China to rise and become the world’s largest rice producer in a stunning reversal of the famine it had suffered years before.
Nowadays, Yuan’s hybrid rice is grown in almost half of China’s rice paddies, with their yields making up around 60 percent of the country’s total rice production.
The dedication to a dream
Instead of monopolizing knowledge on hybrid rice production, Yuan and his team sought to share their techniques with the rest of the world—donating rice strains in the 1980s to the International Rice Research Institute and traveling as far as India, Madagascar and Liberia to train local farmers on growing hybrid rice.
In 2019, Yuan was awarded the Medal of the Republic, China’s highest honor for his revolutionary work. He was also previously elected into the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the US National Academy of Sciences.
Even in his advanced age, Yuan continued working on developing new rice varieties. One recent research project, for instance, involved developing rice that could grow even when exposed to diluted saltwater.
For reversing the country’s fortunes and his steadfast dedication to advancing science, Yuan has since become internationally celebrated, with his passing prompting an outpouring of grief worldwide.
He is survived by Deng Zhe, his wife of 57 years, as well as three sons. Yuan once said that he had two dreams: the first, “to enjoy the cool under rice crops taller than men” and second, that hybrid rice would be grown all over the world to solve food scarcity. Indeed, with his remarkable life, Yuan had achieved his dream.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC-BY-SA.
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