November 06, 2016

Genetically modified superwheat that boosts harvest by 20 to 40%

Genetically modified wheat crops could see a leap in yields after glasshouse trials showed a massive 40% increase in grain output.

Researchers focusing on making the photosynthesis process in wheat plants more efficient are hoping to have the first field trial of this new wheat crop drilled next spring.

The new wheat plants – with genes added from a grass called stiff brome – have been showed to assimilate carbon dioxide better than conventional wheat which led to a big jump in crop biomass.

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.

If the plants produce anything like a 15 per cent increase in yield in field tests, it will be a spectacular result. “It’s an extremely beneficial trait,” says Hawkesford.

In the UK, wheat yields have plateaued at around 8 tonnes per hectare. Getting more wheat from the same area of land would have massive environmental benefits – freeing up land to put aside for wildlife or to capture carbon, for example.

What’s more, the modification helps plants takes advantage of the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “In higher levels of CO2, this works even better,” Hawkesford says.

The team say they have made other genetic alterations that also boost yields in greenhouse tests, though they are not yet ready to divulge details. Several of these yield-boosting modifications could be “stacked” together in a single strain to create superplants.

Plants make the food we eat by adding carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to a five-carbon molecule. In plants like wheat and tobacco, the supply of these five-carbon molecules often runs short, limiting the efficiency of photosynthesis.

So Hawkesford and colleagues, including Christine Raines of the University of Essex and Elizabete Carmo-Silva of Lancaster University, have added extra copies of an enzyme called SBPase, to increase the supply of the five-carbon molecule.

For the field tests, they have created strains of a spring wheat called Cadenza with anywhere from one to six extra copies of the gene for SBPase.

Cadenza is an old wheat variety that is no longer grown commercially. If the trial succeeds, newer strains of wheat would need to be modified to create commercial products – but that’s a long way off, Hawkesford stresses.

SOURCES- New Scientist

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