Senen Escamos and UPLB’s Amazing Rice

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Scientist Escamos while on fieldwork in Tublay, Benguet. (Photo courtesy of Senen Escamos)

Walking through rice paddies in a colorful wide-brimmed hat and folded up jeans, it would be difficult to miss Senen Escamos. The sureness of her step betrays her near-30 years of experience in the field. And gazing at the scene from afar, one can sense something of great importance being studied here. Something, perhaps, of great national benefit.

What could be missed from the attire, however, despite its appropriateness for the setting, is her stature as an award-winning scientist. Media from the developed world has created a curious stereotype of the bemedalled researcher – cold, dry and untouched by the sun.

Fortunately, Escamos, like her peers in Los Baños, frequently defies expectations. She, along with 12 others from her home university were recognized with the Scientist Rank by the Department of Science and Technology under its Scientific Career System (SCS).

“I happened to be a student assistant in the Department of Agronomy during my second year in college taking up my BS in Agriculture,” Escamos explains. Subsequently, she was hired by the Department as a University Research Associate just after finishing her master’s degree in Agronomy. In 1985, she was assigned to work under the Rice Breeding section, where she became directly involved in irrigated lowland rice breeding.

The rest, as they say, is history.

From Generation to Generation

Presently, Escamos is best known both as a University Researcher and as a Rice Breeder at the Crop Science Cluster of UPLB. She is the principal breeder of two inbred rice varieties for irrigated lowland: NSIC Rc144 and NSIC Rc156. In addition, she is also a key participant in a team that bred two  ‘Mestisos’, which as their name suggests are varieties of hardy, high-yielding hybrid rice.

Just what are the differences between these varieties?

“Breeding a new inbred rice starts with making a cross between two or more different varieties (of rice) with the desired attributes,” Escamos says. From these, the best progenies are selected from successive generations of inbreeding until an “inbred line” is identified possessing those attributes. “An inbred rice maintains its genetic purity from generation to generation.”

“NSIC Rc144 is derived from a 3-way cross I made in 1998,” Escamos explains. It is a very early-maturing rice variety (107 days), that gives an average yield of 5.4 tons per hectare (tons/ha) and a yield potential of 8.6 tons/ha. It is moderately resistant to factors like blast, sheath blight and stem borers, which can be the bane of any rice farmer. More importantly, Escamos says it has “good milling and physical attributes and good eating quality”.

On the other hand, NSIC Rc156, is also an early maturing variety, with a higher yield potential of 9.5 ton/ha. It is also moderately resistant to three different kinds of stemborers, though Escamos notes that it is relatively susceptible to disease and should not be planted in “hotspot areas”.

Both inbred varieties have strong stems and are resistant to lodging – a wasteful phenomenon where cereal crops collapse because of too much growth or beating by the rain. In addition, the seed of inbred rice is cheaper, and a harvest can be used for planting anew, without losing varietal identity. In the end, the farmers are the biggest winners.

Highly-desired Hybrids

Then there are the Mestisos.

“The project to develop thermo-sensitive genetic male sterile (TGMS) lines and TGMS-based two-line hybrids (hybrids are crosses between genetically distinct plants) began in 1999 as a collaborative undertaking between UPLB and PhilRice,” Escamos reveals. “The TGMS system of developing hybrids was taken advantage of, since in the Philippines, temperature differences exist due to elevation, latitude and time of year”.

And from this rigorous assessment and selection process that followed, two promising hybrids stood out from among hundreds.. After being approved for release as commercial varieties by National Seed Industry Council (NSIC), they were given the names by which we know them today: NSIC Rc 202H or ‘Mestiso 19’, and NSIC Rc 204H or ‘Mestiso 20’.

The advantages afforded by both Mestiso varieties are significant. While being an early-maturing variety, Mestiso 19 has a potential yield of 10.7 tons/ha, according to national trials (with an average of 7.0 tons/ha). “It has a mean yield advantage of 17% over the widely grown inbred variety PSB Rc 82,” Escamos says.

In addition to being adaptive and high yielding, Mestiso 19 is also surprisingly resistant. “It has an intermediate resistance to blast and rice tungro virus (two of the most notorious rice diseases), and shows an intermediate reaction to stemborers and hoppers,” Escamos says. Like the inbred varieties before it, it too is resistant to lodging.

Meanwhile, Mestiso 20, while being a medium-maturing hybrid (120 days), has an even more dramatic yield of 11.7 tons/ha in national trials. This, with its average yield of 6.4 tons/ha, means its yield advantage is 15% greater than the market standard.  In addition to sharing many resistances with Mestiso 19, it is also “highly desired” according to Escamos because of its high acceptability score in both raw and cooked forms.

“Farmers benefit from the use of these hybrid varieties,” Escamos says, “due to increased income due to increased yields”. In addition, seed growers also profit by producing hybrid seeds. “More importantly,” she adds, “the labor in the production of F1 hyrids is around 45% of the normal cost, which is important in the development of rural communities.”

On the Road to Rice Sufficiency

It comes as no surprise that Escamos is a firm believer in the goal of rice sufficiency. After all, she is behind many of the innovations that could steer the country to that direction.

Escamos checking on rice varieties. (Photo courtesy of Senen Escamos)

“It is important that the government continue its efforts towards rice sufficiency,” Escamos asserts. “We have to capitalize on our capabilities and available resources. Proven rice production technologies to increase palay production are available,” she adds. What is left is for government to implement these innovations correctly.

She is also a supporter of PhilRice’s National Year of the Rice campaign that aims to promote efficient rice farming through the “adoption of proven rice technologies”. Among these are the use of hybrid varieties, supported by an advocacy to promote responsible rice consumption for better health and less wastage.

And despite having one of the most formidable resumés in the field of agronomy and rice breeding, Escamos credits the solid mentoring and camaraderie she found at UPLB when first starting out as a scholar for part of this success.

She describes the UPLB Rice Varietal Improvement Team that she joined in the 80s to be “interdisciplinary” yet “very cohesive”. “Everyone is supportive of one another and this sustained my interest in the field.” A further breakthrough occurred in 1995 when she attended the International Course on Applied Plant Breeding at the International Agricultural Center in the Netherlands – an event that would further inflame her interest in her area of study.

Fortunately for the country, Escamos seems far from finished.  She is currently the leader of the project developing TGMS lines and TGMS-based two-line hybrids – a relatively new technology in the Philippines, in need of more research.

She is also hard at work to diversify the genetic base of the PhilRice and UPLB breeding programs. This genetic diversity improves the likelihood of isolating improved genotypes.

“Wild rice species are possible sources of resistance to pests and diseases and tolerance to stresses like drought,” Escamos explains. “Lines derived from wide hybridization activities are supplied to breeders for their use as parents for crosses, with the objective of developing improved rice varieties.”