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Iron-boosting GM wheat trial could help anaemia sufferers, say Norwich crop researchers

PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 April 2019 | UPDATED: 06:59 30 April 2019

White flour made from wheat currently needs to be fortified with iron - but a new crop variety being trialled in Norwich could produce this important nutrient itself.  Picture: James Bass

White flour made from wheat currently needs to be fortified with iron - but a new crop variety being trialled in Norwich could produce this important nutrient itself. Picture: James Bass

(C) Archant Norfolk 2013

Norfolk crop scientists have engineered a genetically-modified (GM) wheat plant which can produce white flour with extra iron - potentially bringing health benefits to anaemia sufferers.

GM wheat biofortified with extra iron being planted at the trials site at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture John Innes Centre.GM wheat biofortified with extra iron being planted at the trials site at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture John Innes Centre.

A three-year field trial of the biofortified plants is being carried out under controlled conditions at the John Innes Centre (JIC) on the Norwich Research Park, after approval was granted by the government.

The project follows advances in wheat genome sequencing which has allowed researchers to identify the genes responsible for the transport of iron, an important micronutrient which boosts haemoglobin levels in the blood.

The JIC team has been able to move one such gene and make it active in the endosperm, the main starchy part of the wheat seed which produces white flour, but has a low iron content.

Currently, white flour is fortified using iron powder or iron salts but the crop trials, if successful, will remove the need for this process by creating a wheat plant which produces flour with its own built-in natural iron.

A new variety of GM wheat is being trialled at the John Innes Centre which could mean iron no longer needs to be added to flour for white bread. Picture: Su AndersonA new variety of GM wheat is being trialled at the John Innes Centre which could mean iron no longer needs to be added to flour for white bread. Picture: Su Anderson

Project leader Dr Janneke Balk said boosting iron levels in everyday food could help the estimated one billion people that suffer from iron deficiency anaemia worldwide.

“We've targeted white flour because after years of campaigns to get people to eat wholemeal products, many people still prefer white bread and muffins,” she said.

“Also, wholemeal flour which uses the bran and wheat-germ portions of the seed, contains more iron but it is not all absorbed into the body. By producing high-iron white flour we can reach more people and make the biggest impact on public health.”

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Prof Cristobal Uauy, also a project leader at the JIC, said the trials are necessary and timely.

“Wheat is one of the main foodstuffs in the world. Here in the UK over 99pc of households consume wheat products,” he said. “For many years, we have tried to improve micronutrient content in wheat, especially iron content, but it is difficult using traditional breeding methods.

“We have been working for several years in the glasshouse and we know these wheat plants are able to accumulate a high amount of iron. Now the important thing is to see how they grow and behave in the field.

“If we see that the plants behave as they do in the glasshouse we are one step closer to having an impact on public health.”

The application to hold the trials was made under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and considered by the secretary of state, along with representations relating to risk of environmental impact.

The JIC says the trial will be carried out within existing confined facilities between April and September, from 2019 to 2022.

All intellectual property of the project will be freely available to breeders and farmers to access and use, where regulations for GM crops allow.

Prof Uauy added: “When breeders use traditional methods we are looking at around 500 thousand mutations in a plant.

“In this case we have one specific mutation, an edit that we have generated in this wheat plant. This is the same method that we see in nature but it's a much more targeted and accurate approach compared to traditional breeding mutations.”

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