New GM potatoes developed by Norwich scientists can withstand late potato blight

GM potato trial at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.
Prof Jonathan Jones with a GM potato plant
picture by Adrian Judd
for EDP Mike Pollitt GM potato trial at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Prof Jonathan Jones with a GM potato plant picture by Adrian Judd for EDP Mike Pollitt

Monday, February 17, 2014
8:43 AM

Poll: As scientists at Norfolk’s world-class plant research centre successfully prove that GM potatoes can withstand attacks by a devastating disease, is it time we started using GM crops?

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Results of the three-year trials could help to reduce the £3.5bn global losses caused by late potato blight.

These trials of two varieties of potatoes, containing genes from a wild relative, survived one of the worst seasons for late blight for more than a quarter of a century.

Already this technology, developed by a team at the Sainsbury Laboratory, is now helping scientists in the United States to produce new potential varieties of potatoes with late blight resistance.

The project, which was led by Prof Jonathan Jones, and partly funded by research charities and also the taxpayer, involved planting about 192 potato plants inside a three-metre high steel security fence at Colney on the Norwich Research Park.

In the third and final season, the GM potatoes survived while the ordinary commercial variety, Desiree, was 100pc infected by early August. And also the blocks of 16 GM tubers each weighed between 6kg and 13kg while the untreated blocks weighed between 1.6kg and 5kg.

A paper, which is published today and has been peer-reviewed for the Royal Society’s scientific journal, reports that the team led by Prof Jones has made further progress in developing resistance to late blight.

“With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favour of potatoes and against late blight,” said Prof Jones.

The introduced gene, from a South American wild relative of potato, triggers the plant’s natural defence mechanisms by enabling it to recognise the pathogen. While cultivated potatoes have a total of around 750 resistance genes, late blight is usually able to infect plants.

“Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it,” said Prof Jones.

The trials were carried out with Desiree and also Maris Piper potatoes, which were among key varieties grown commercially. They were grown in pots in a greenhouse and were then transplanted after any risk of frost to test the response in a field situation. All the potatoes, which were grown inside the £20,000 green cage, were later destroyed and were not allowed to enter the food chain.

Late blight has been one of the biggest challenges to the production of potatoes around the world. In the middle years of the 19th century, strains were responsible for the Irish Potato Famine, which resulted in the loss of an estimated one million lives to starvation between 1845 and 1847.

To grow high-quality crops for the table, for processing into chips and crisps and a range of other products, growers have to rely on the only weapon in the plant protection armoury, spraying a fungicide to check spread of the infection.

Typically, a main crop potato field might be sprayed between 10 and 15 times before harvest and even up to 25 times in a bad blight year across most of Europe.

It was also costly, with each application costing about £20 an acre, and in moist and humid conditions, might have to be repeated every five to seven days.

The research, which was part-funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, cost more than £750,000, plus a further £46,039 for security to safeguard the field trials.

The trials have been criticised by anti-GM group, GeneWatch, which claims they have cost £3.2m. “Taxpayers’ money is being wasted on yet more GM research that is a very long way from delivering what farmers really need” said Dr Helen Wallace, director.

“There are blight-resistant non-GM potatoes already on the market. Why waste money, take unnecessary risks, and end up with a product that no one wants to eat?”

10 comments

  • Yet another unbalanced article about GM crops. No a word about the negative aspects of such work. We already have excellent varieties, selected by conventional plant breeding methods, that show good resistance to blight . Where is the "balanced" debate ? I would plead for scepticpete and dragonfly to do some reading of the real evidence.

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    Sustagric

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • More GM pollution. If only they spent as much time and money to research something of value to humans and the environment... Changing plant software without understanding it, is just not sensible or desirable.

    Report this comment

    Dave01

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • Another push claim from those who want to patent staple foods so they are in control of the food chain, how sad and how yawn. Blight resistant potatoes are already available from conventiuonal breeders, but that shouldn't stop Prof. Jones to perform this media dance, after all John Innes is tax subsidised, reagrdles of their lack of marketable foods.

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    ingo wagenknecht

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • This is good news for the farming community but extremely bad news for humans as every time you increase a plants resistance to disease you make make it more toxic and indigestible to humans. They have already beggered up Wheat and Barley, so now it's on to the humble spud. Why do you think so many people have digestive problems in this country?

    Report this comment

    Vic Sponge

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • No-one will buy GM anything Therefore the supermarkets will not try to sell them Therefore the farmers will not grow them So.what's the point???

    Report this comment

    Windless

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • If they`re safe enough for the Americans to grow them , we should be planting them . Progress through technology .

    Report this comment

    dragonfly

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • Great news. Well done to all involved. I'm fed up with organisations like GeneWatch claiming to speak for everyone and holding back progress. Plenty of rational people would be perfectly happy to consume what they say is "a product no one wants to eat". Even more would too if it wasn't for their scaremongering. Keep up the good work scientists. Sense must win out in the end for the sake of humanity and the planet.

    Report this comment

    skepticpete

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • Crops have been successfully grown and eaten since time began. All of sudden this is not good enough. To alter the basic structure of a growing plant by scientific means is something for science fiction. GM crops are important for one thing. Profit. There is no other reason. The GM crops will have the texture,colour and shelf life to please the supermarkets. The old chestnut that politcians love to use," Feed the world " is just sheer nonsense. Pity the future generations who will bear the brunt of all the downfalls of GM crops.

    Report this comment

    stormy

    Monday, February 17, 2014

  • Sustagric, could you please point me towards this reading of 'the real evidance please'? I have tried to find it, but I personally am struggling. "Why do you think so many people have digestive problems in this country?" - Hmmm, GM probably the cause of all the flooding too? I think McDonalds has more to do with that one. "Crops have been successfully grown and eaten since time began" - incorrect, read up on the Irish potato famine.

    Report this comment

    Jack Norman

    Tuesday, February 18, 2014

  • Windless: people already eat GM without knowing it - GM soya in animal feed for example. Michael Pollitt actually wrote (in terms) in his Annual Review that mention of GM was 'quietly dropped'...food labelling is a major problem here.

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, February 17, 2014

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