Top Norfolk GM potato researcher identifies new potential resistance genes

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014
12:00 PM

Two potentially-important genes with natural resistance to late potato blight have been identified by a team of scientists at the Norwich Research Park.

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Prof Jonathan Jones, who led the successful three-year trial involving blight-resistant GM potatoes at the Sainsbury Laboratory at Colney, said that further progress has been made.

He told about 40 members of Holt & District Farmers’ Club that the results of the replicated trials of GM potatoes containing a resistance gene from a wild relative, had been published earlier this year.

Prof Jones, who had moved to Norwich in 1988 after working in the United States, had more than a quarter of a century of experience using the GM techniques.

He had started the research challenge to produce a potato, with natural resistance to late blight 13 years ago. Blight was hugely damaging and probably caused about £5bn in lost global production, said Prof Jones.

Speaking at the club’s final meeting of the winter season, he told members that late blight had been responsible for the Great Potato Famine, which resulted in the death of an estimated one million people in Ireland during the middle of the 19th century.

The process of looking for new sources of blight resistance had started at the Sainsbury Laboratory, part of the John Innes Centre, which had involved screening thousands of potatoes from around the world. “Lo and Behold, we found one in a wild potato called solanum venturii. We cloned it and put it into Desiree,” he said.

Prof Jones said that the hunt for further sources of resistance continued because if it was possible to “stack” genes, then it would be much harder for the blight to overcome a single resistance gene. “What we need to do is to clone a lot of different blight resistance genes and that’s what we’re trying to do. We think that we’ve got one more already this year and we hope to get another couple,” he added.

“If we can stack up multiple resistance genes, we will have quite a durable blight resistance,” said Prof Jones. However, even a variety with one resistance gene would not avoid the necessity to spray against blight but it would be easier to manage.

“If you have a single resistance gene, it is a very easy task for a pathogen to make one mutation and overcome it; if you have three resistance genes, then a pathogen has to mutate three different genes at the same time to overcome it – that’s a bigger ask.”

Already a leading private company in the United States, Simplot has taken the next steps to produce commercial varieties, which combine blight resistance with other elements including better bruise resistance, he said.

Colleagues at the Sainsbury Laboratory were working on other important plant diseases including rust and septoria in wheat. Prof Jones said that another project included trying to combat soyabean rust in Brazil, which had emerged about 15 years ago having spread from Africa. Now, farmers were spending an estimated $800m on fungicides to control this rust. “We have a partnership with the TSL with DuPont Pioneer to come up with genetic solutions to that. We’re making good progress and we hope that it will come up with solve the problem,” he added.

Prof Jones said that a philosophy of trying to control diseases with genetics rather than chemistry was likely to be more robust long-term.

Another project involved wheat stem rust. Prof Jones said Norman Borlaug, often described as the “Father of the Green Revolution” probably saved many hundreds of millions of lives by improving performance and disease resistance of wheat.

“The resistances that he deployed lasted 40 years but then they went down in Uganda in 1999,” he said.

Now that race, which overcame those resistance genes, has spread. His colleagues were working on cloning new sources of resistance from wild grasses and also from barley too to prevent wheat stem rust.

Prof Jones said that wheat yellow rust was also a challenge but barley was “essentially completely resistant” to wheat races. “We’re just trying to clone the genes from barley, which confer resistance on wheat races of yellow rust and put them into wheat. It should work, we think.”

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