Rothamsted Research is to undertake field trials in the UK, which will assess the ability of GM wheat cultivars to photosynthesise more efficiently under field conditions.

Permission to undertake the work was recently granted by DEFRA in the UK. The field trials will be undertaken between 2017 and 2019.

Rothamsted scientists, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Essex and Lancaster University, have developed wheat plants that can carry out photosynthesis 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.

Professor Christine Raines, Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex and principal investigator for this research project, said that 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 enzymesedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase, or SBPase.”

She added that the university has engineered GM wheat plants to produce increased levels of SBPase by introducing an SPBase gene from a grass species related to wheat and used as a model in laboratory experiments

Meanwhile, Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, Head of the Plant Biology at Rothamsted said that the trial will be a significant step forward.

“We will be able to assess in real environmental conditions the potential of these plants to 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 farmers.”