2020 applicants
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Field trial of GM wheat plant gets go-ahead

  • Date

    Wed 1 Feb 17

GM wheat plant field trial gets go-ahead - Professor Christine Raines

A bid to run field trails with GM wheat plants involving Essex has been approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The trial by Rothamsted Research will test whether GM wheat plants are able to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in the field and whether this trait could result in a higher yielding crop.

Scientists at Essex, in collaboration with researchers at Rothamsted and Lancaster University have developed wheat plants that can carry out photosynthesis more efficiently - the process that enables plants to harvest energy from the sun and convert it to products for food and fuel.

The GM field trials will now take place on the Rothamsted Farm over the next two years to evaluate the performance of the engineered plants in the field.

Ensuring food security is a major challenge given the projected need to increase world food production by 40% in the next 20 years and 70% by 2050. Wheat is one of the major grain crops worldwide and provides approximately one-fifth of the total calories consumed globally. However, wheat yields have reached a plateau in recent years and predictions are that yield gains will not reach the level required to feed the 9 billion population predicted for 2050. A promising but as yet-unexploited route to increase wheat yields is to improve the efficiency by which energy in the form of light is converted to wheat biomass.

Professor Christine Raines, Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the Essex and principal investigator for this research project, said: “The efficiency of the process of photosynthesis integrated over the season is the major determinant of crop yield. However, to date photosynthesis has not been used to select for high yielding crops in conventional breeding programmes and represents an unexploited opportunity. But there is now evidence that improving the efficiency of photosynthesis by genetic modification is one of the promising approaches to achieve higher wheat yield potential.”

She added: “In this project we have genetically modified wheat plants to increase the efficiency of the conversion of energy from sunlight into biomass. We have shown that these plants carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in glasshouse conditions. One of the steps in photosynthesis shown to limit this process is carried out by the enzymesedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase). We have engineered GM wheat plants to produce increased levels of SBPase by introducing a SPBase gene from Brachypodium distachyon (common name stiff brome), a plant species related to wheat and used as a model in laboratory experiments.”

The experiment is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) consortium activities.

Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, Head of the Plant Biology and Crop Science Department at Rothamsted Research and lead scientist at Rothamsted for this trial, said: “We will perform the proposed controlled experiment in our already established facilities here at Rothamsted Research. This trial will be a significant step forward as we will be able to assess in ‘real environmental conditions’ the potential of these plants to produce more using the same resources and land area as their non-GM counterparts. These field trials are the only way to assess the viability of a solution that can bring economic benefits to farmers, returns to the UK tax payer from the long-term investment in this research, benefits to the UK economy as a whole and the environment in general.“