Rothamsted Research applies to plant autumn-sown GM wheat

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Rothamsted Research has submitted an application to Defra to extend its current GM wheat field trial to include additional autumn-sown cadenza wheat. Rothamsted scientists believe it would be advantageous to gain further data from their experiment, in wheat planted at a different time of year and under different weather conditions with different aphid populations. This will give us additional data under a more diverse range of environmental conditions.

Rothamsted has therefore submitted a request to Defra, which will be assessed by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), and by members of the public through a 60-day consultation period.

Because the UK’s temperate climate permits wheat plant growth during the winter, Cadenza wheat can be sown in either the autumn or the spring and both sowings are harvested in August/September. As such, the extension of the experiment will further increase the relevance to UK farmers and those in other temperate climates by covering a greater range environmental variability. This weather variability has been particularly evident in the UK in the past 12 months.

Research leader Professor John Picket said “With the trial up and running, it seems sensible to make this small adjustment. Autumn infestations of aphids are a real problem too, especially with the varied weather we are having. These additional data will add a great deal of value to the overall investigation by testing our wheat plant under a more varied range of environmental conditions throughout the year and in accordance with the different times of the year farmers plant their wheat.”

The controlled experiment being conducted by scientists from Rothamsted Research combines modern genetic engineering with natural plant defences to test whether aphid-repelling wheat works in the field.

Wheat is the most important UK crop with an annual value of about £1.2 billion. Currently a large proportion of UK wheat is treated with a broad spectrum of chemical insecticides to control cereal aphids, which reduce yields by sucking sap from plants and by transmitting barley yellow dwarf virus. Unfortunately, repeated use of insecticides can kill other non-target insect species including the natural enemies of aphids, which itself could have further impacts on biodiversity.

Rothamsted Research scientists, who receive strategic funding from the UK Government through the Biotechnology and Biological sciences Research Council (BBSRC), have been seeking novel ecological solutions to overcome this problem in wheat. One approach has been to use an odour, or alarm pheromone, which aphids produce to alert one another to danger. This odour, (E)-β-farnesene, is also produced by some plants as a natural defence mechanism and not only repels aphids but also attracts the natural enemies of aphids, ladybirds for example. This work has been effective in the laboratory and Rothamsted scientists have already conducted the first field trial to investigate whether the GM plants work outside in the field, as well as in the laboratory.

The new application that Rothamsted Research has submitted to Defra for permission to conduct the winter sowing involves exactly the same GM lines and experimental design as the current spring-sown experiment. The autumn extension to the trial will be sown in mid-September and destroyed after 10-12 weeks in late November or late December depending on the weather. 

Once the Rothamsted application is passed to Defra, the independent expert group, the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment (ACRE), will evaluate the application through a statutory 90 day process, including a 60 day public consultation. 

The Secretary of State will consider any representations made to him relating to any risks of damage to the environment posed by the release of the genetically modified organisms within a period that he 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 his receipt of the application. The public register can be inspected by contacting the Defra Information Resource Centre, Ergon House, Horseferry Rd, London SW1P 2AL. This information will also be placed on the Defra website.

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Director of Science, said: “We face the challenge of producing food in a sustainable way, while minimising effects on the environment.  This research is exploring one approach to solving this problem. It is important to carry out these investigations as these data gathered will help to provide answers about the potential of this type of GM technology and what benefits it could offer. Importantly, the findings generated through this extension will add to the picture of how this technology compares to others and is it vital that future decisions are based on scientific evidence.”

This filed trial is part of a five-year project funded by BBSRC and more information can be found at www.rothamsted.ac.uk/aphidwheat


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