NEWS

ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH SUBMITS APPLICATION TO DEFRA FOR PERMISSION TO CARRY OUT FIELD TRIAL WITH GM WHEAT PLANTS

The trial 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. A public consultation has begun.

  • 04
  • NOV
  • 2016

Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, submitted an application on 3rd November 2016 to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for permission to carry out GM field trials on the Rothamsted Farm in 2017 and 2018. Scientists at Rothamsted Research, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Essex and Lancaster University, have developed wheat plants that can carry out photosynthesis more efficiently i.e. convert light energy into plant biomass more efficiently. This trait has the potential to result in higher yielding plants. The purpose of the proposed trial is 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. Traditional breeding and agronomic approaches have maximised light capture and allocation to the grain. 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 University of 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.”

“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 enzyme. sedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase). We have engineered GM wheat plants to produce increased levels of SBPase by introducing an SPBase gene from Brachypodium distachyon (common name stiff brome), a plant species related to wheat and used as a model in laboratory experiments” Christine added.

Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, co-investigator in this project at Lancaster University, added: “We have produced two types of plants, one in which two extra copies of SBPase are functional and one in which six extra copies of SBPase are functional. If granted permission to carry out the field trial, we will measure the photosynthetic efficiency of the plants in the field and we will determine total aboveground plant biomass and grain yield on an area basis at full maturity. We will also measure the number of wheat ears on an area basis and the grain number and weight per ear. From this data we will estimate the harvest index, which is the proportion of biomass allocated to the grain.”

Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, Head of the Plant Sciences at Rothamsted Research and lead scientist at Rothamsted for this trial said: “If we are granted permission to perform a controlled experiment in our already established facilities here at Rothamsted Research it will be a significant step forward. We will be able to assess in ‘real environmental conditions’ the potential of these plants to ultimately 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 the farmers, returns to the UK tax payer of the long-term investment in this research, benefits to the UK economy as a whole and the environment in general. Here at Rothamsted we are very happy to provide any further information and explanation on this area of research that can facilitate informed contribution from the public to the ongoing consultation carried out by Defra”.

The Secretary of State will consider any representations made to her relating to any risks of damage to the environment posed by the release of the genetically modified organisms within a period that she shall specify in accordance with the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002.

The Secretary of State will place information on this proposed GMO release on a public register within 12 days of her receipt of the application. The public register can be inspected by contacting the Defra GM Team at Nobel House, Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR (e-mail gm-regulation@defra.gsi.gov.uk). This information will also be placed on the GOV.UK website at https://www.gov.uk/genetically-modified-organisms-applications-and-consents

The website will include details of how and when representations may be made in respect of the application.

More information on this project is below; 

Key Points 

  • Rothamsted Research has applied to Defra for permission to conduct a field trial of GM wheat plants that have been engineered to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently, i.e. to harness light energy in a more efficient way. 
  • The increased photosynthetic efficiency has the potential to result in higher yields in the GM plants in the field. 
  • The trial aims to test the efficacy of these plants in field conditions. 
  • Wheat yields have plateaued globally and there is a pressing need to develop new higher yielding wheat varieties using the same amount of resources and land. 
  • Scientists from Rothamsted Research, the University of Essex and Lancaster University have been working on understanding photosynthesis and improving its efficiency for more than 25 years. 
  • The research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership Consortium. 
  • A public consultation on this proposed field trial has now begun and is available on the Government (Defra) website. 
  • Ensuring food and nutritional 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 and protein consumed globally. 
  • Wheat yields have reached a plateau in recent years. 
  • A promising route to increase wheat yields is to improve the efficiency by which light energy is converted to wheat biomass in the process called photosynthesis. 
  • Photosynthesis is the major determinant of energy conversion efficiency. 
  • Traditional breeding and agronomic approaches have maximised light capture and the proportion of total biomass allocated to the grain. 
  • Genetic modification is a promising approach to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis and in this project it is being explored to achieve higher wheat yield potential. 
  • This is a small scale proof of concept field experiment to test the potential of the GM plants to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently and deliver higher yields in relevant field conditions.

Funding of the research project:

The proposed experiment is funded by 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.

About IWYP

The International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) is an independent voluntary research funding consortium which responds to a major priority of the G20 sponsored Wheat Initiative. It will help the Wheat Initiative to fulfil its mission to coordinate wheat research and contribute to global food and nutritional security.

IWYP, established in 2014, represents a long-term global endeavour that uses a collaborative approach to bring together funding from public research and funding organisations from a large number of countries and further seeks to increase impact through public-private partnerships. Detailed information can be found at www.iwyp.org

Currently, this includes the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the United Kingdom (BBSRC), Grains Research and Development Corporation of Australia (GRDC), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA), Department of Biotechnology of India (DBT), International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique of France (INRA), Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) and Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food of Mexico (SAGARPA).

About the University of Essex

Ranked in the top two per cent of world universities, with three subjects in the global top 100, the University of Essex celebrated 50 years of excellence in education and research in 2014.  Our students have ranked Essex in the UK’s top ten for satisfaction with their courses for the past four years. Founded to be daring and different, the University continues to challenge convention and conduct pioneering research which informs policy and changes lives. Placed in the top 20 UK universities for research quality, and consistently top for politics, we are an international community for original thinkers. In 2013 we were awarded the only Regius Professorship for political science by HM The Queen. Research informs our teaching, providing a transformational living and learning experience which equips our students with the skills, knowledge and curiosity to build successful careers and lead fulfilling lives. With more than 13,000 students from 141 countries, Essex graduates develop a genuine world view.

About Lancaster University

Lancaster University is ranked among the top 10 universities by all leading league tables in the UK and has a rising global reputation. It is the highest ranked University in the North West of England in the Guardian, Times/Sunday Times and Complete University Guide. It is also top for employability and student satisfaction in its region. 83% of Lancaster’s research is judged to be internationally excellent and world leading. The University has a strong focus on working with business and has helped create more than 5,000 new jobs. Lancaster University

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

About BBSRC
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes

About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.