Five-year project for research into wheat

PLANT science company NIAB has been awarded £620,000 to provide a community resource for wheat transformation using genetically modified (GM) technology.

A field of wheat
A field of wheat

PLANT science company NIAB has been awarded £620,000 to provide a community resource for wheat transformation using genetically modified (GM) technology.

The five-year project will allow UK plant scientists to access the research and different wheat breeding techniques that are currently being used.

Project leader Dr Emma Wallington said: “At NIAB we can add a new gene into a wheat cell, which already contains an estimated 150,000 genes, and regenerate a new ‘fine-tuned’ wheat plant.

“This is an important tool which helps us understand what effect the gene has on the plant and is much more precise than traditional breeding techniques.

“It allows a functional analysis of genes for research and, importantly, a viable route to breeding new traits for commercial exploitation through traditional breeding techniques.”

Starting with 100 immature spring wheat seeds, the NIAB crop transformation team can regenerate transformed wheat plants from 30-50% of the original seed – a rate well above the current industry standards.

Only one plant is regenerated per seed so each of the regenerated plants are individual. NIAB can produce more than 3,000 independent transformed wheat plants per year.

Dr Wallington said: “The high efficiency transformation method we use was developed using an American wheat variety.

“BBSRC funding will allow us to evaluate 50 UK and European wheat varieties with this method to identify those closer to home that work well, extending the practical value of this technology to UK-grown wheat.”

BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), which is funding the scheme, is also funding the transformation of 50 novel genes, producing around 30 unique transgenic wheat plants for each gene.

This will be one of the largest experiments undertaken in wheat transformation and will test genes from a wide range of plant species.

“Everyone involved in this study is excited by its potential to discover new genes that may make future improvements to a crop that’s so important to UK agriculture,” says Dr Wallington.

NIAB is licensed to provide wheat transformation services for academic and commercial groups. It means academic researchers can potentially translate their research without needing further licensing or royalty payments.

NIAB said that so far, GM crop research has mainly concentrated on giving resistance to herbicides or insects, but a new generation of traits which confer drought tolerance, disease resistance, yield improvements or health benefits are now being examined. Because some of the genes are from other crop species, GM is necessary to study them.

Professor Andy Greenland, NIAB’s director of genetics and breeding, said: “Wheat is the most important crop in the UK with good growers achieving more than 10 tonnes/hectare.

“But if the UK is to double wheat production over the next 40 years to meet consumer demand, the current annual increases made by plant breeders of around 75 kg/ha must improve three-fold. Meanwhile our climate is changing and we need wheat varieties that are better adapted to drought and reduced fertiliser inputs to maintain a sustainable supply of affordable, nutritious and safe food.

“Many technologies will contribute to tackling the challenge of increasing crop production and it is inevitable that genetic modification will make a contribution.

“This will either be directly, with the development and introduction of GM wheat varieties with new traits, or indirectly, as a research tool to better understand how genes for particular traits function. Open access to these transformation resources could have a significant impact on the future success of UK wheat production.”


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