Rothamsted Research has applied to Defra for permission to conduct a field trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat plants that have been engineered to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently.
Greenhouse trials have shown that the GM wheat, a spring variety - Cadenza, yields between 20 per cent and 40 per cent more than controls and researchers are keen to see how the plants perform under field conditions.
Prof Christine Raines, University of Essex, said: We want to take the greenhouse proof of concept to the field, a situation closer to that seen in a farmer’s field, to see whether we can see this step change in yield in the field.”
The mechanism for the yield increase involves an enzyme, SBPase, which helps the plant to assimilate and use CO2 more efficiently during photosynthesis. An SPBase gene has been introduced from stiff brome.
Although Rothamsted Research has done previous research on GM wheat, it is the first time yield and photosynthesis have been targeted specifically, said Prof Raines.
The researchers chose spring wheat because experiments can be carried out more quickly with no need for vernalisation but there is no reason why the same effect cannot be replicated in winter wheat, said Prof Malcolm Hawkesford, Rothamsted Research.
With more and heavier grain, he acknowledged lodging could be an issue. “There is an increase in the canopy which will help contribute to rigidity of the canopy but at 30-40 per cent higher yield it could be an issue. If it is an issue we need to think about breeding for stem stiffness.”
A decision will be made by Defra on whether to grant permission for the field trials within the next three months, following a consultation period. If the application is successful, the experiments will begin next spring.
Meanwhile a poll of just over 2000 adults conducted by independent market research agency Populus on behalf of Bayer suggested that the majority agreed with use of genetic modification and new breeding technologies such as gene editing, providing they were safe and had no negative consequences related to health and the environment.
Just over half (54 per cent) agreed with GM foods in principle, with a further 10 per cent believing they were the only way forward in ensuring there was enough food by reducing crops’ vulnerability to disease through genetic modification. Young people (18-24) were twice as likely to believe GM crops were the only solution compared with the over-45s, while men were more supportive of
GM crops in principle (60 per cent) than women (48 per cent), according to the survey.