Joseph Watts, Political editor
Saturday, November 10, 2012
Scientific work at a Norwich research centre that could slash the cost of producing wheat in the UK has been backed by a £2.5m government grant.
The work being carried out at the John Innes Centre in Colney will see a new strain of wheat developed that is less reliant on fertilisers to deliver strong crop yields.
The grant was part of a £20m funding package announced by the government yesterday to back research around the country into ‘synthetic biology’.
John Innes Centre associate research director Giles Oldroyd explained that his team had been studying how in nature some peas and beans allow certain bacteria to colonise their roots.
The microbes then help the plant to take the nitrogen it needs to grow from the air, whereas other crops like wheat rely on expensive fertilizers to fix their nitrogen.
Prof Oldroyd has been looking at how the peas and beans allow the bacteria into their roots, and researching whether a strain of wheat can be engineered that also has this capability.
He said: “We’ve been studying this for the last ten years; trying to understand how the peas and beans are recognising the bacteria and letting it colonise their roots. We are now ready to start transferring the gene to cereals.
“We are synthesising a new signalling capability that allows cereals to recognise the nitrogen fixing bacteria.”
He explained that the grant went “hand in hand“ with a £6.2m award received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation received earlier this year to fund similar research.
He added: “We currently use a lot of inorganic fertilisers, we spray the fields with them. But it has a high economic cost - half of the cost of producing wheat is on the purchase and application of fertilisers - there is a significant environmental cost too.
“We are trying to reduce dependence, without reducing the yield.”
The John Innes Centre and other organisations at the Norwich Research Park were also backed with £90m of government money earlier in May.
Ministers are currently drawing up a life sciences strategy, seeing the sector as a crucial potential driver of economic growth for the British economy.
Universities and science minister David Willetts said: “This investment is part of the Government’s commitment to making the UK a world leader in the research and application of synthetic biology. It will help to ensure that academics and industry can realise its full potential.”