In ancient China, black rice was considered so superior and rare, it was reserved exclusively for the emperor and royalty. These days the grain, also known as forbidden rice, has become the darling of gourmets and people seeking superior nutrition.
These folks are onto something: The color of black rice is the result of plant pigments called anthocyanins, which research has linked to a number of positive health effects: from anti-inflammatory properties to healthier arteries and better insulin regulation.
And now, geneticists report they've traced the birth and spread of black rice.
Modern, domesticated rice comes in a range of colors, usually described as white, red and black. The wild rice from which it was domesticated has reddish grains, but the early farmers who created the rice we eat today selected for white grains. Collectors have never found black grains in more than a thousand samples of wild rice stored in genebanks. And yet black varieties are fairly widespread, albeit sporadically, across Asia — from India to Japan — with black varieties in each of the three subspecies of edible rice.
All of which poses a bit of a problem for the origin of black rice. The fact that it has never been found in wild rice means that it must have arisen after the start of domestication. How, then, did it spread across Asia and into the different subspecies?