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Gene cloning breakthrough proves potential for GM crop protection, say scientists

PUBLISHED: 09:58 20 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:13 20 August 2020

Norwich crop scientists have successfully transferred disease resistance genes from wheat to barley using genetic modification (GM) techniques. Pictured: Dr Brande Wulff at the John Innes Centre. Picture: John Innes Centre.

Norwich crop scientists have successfully transferred disease resistance genes from wheat to barley using genetic modification (GM) techniques. Pictured: Dr Brande Wulff at the John Innes Centre. Picture: John Innes Centre.

John Innes Centre

Genes which protect wheat from a deadly plant disease have been successfully cloned and transferred into barley by Norwich scientists – a breakthrough hailed as a glimpse into the future of crop protection.

A team from the John Innes Centre at the Norwich Research Park, working with scientists in the USA and Australia, used genetic modification (GM) techniques to fortify barley plants with genes proven to give wheat plants resistance to a yield-destroying infection called stem rust.

Researchers said it could be a model for future scientific efforts to protect food crops against the growing threat of fungal pathogens – but it would require a change of policy for them to be grown in the UK, where the commercial cultivation of GM crops is still banned.

In contrast to wheat, where 82 stem rust resistance genes have been found, only 10 have been discovered in barley. Previous research efforts to transfer this genetic resistance from one commercially-valuable member of the grass family to another using traditional crossing methods have proved unsuccessful.

But the new study, published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal, shows that the transgenic barley plants bolstered with four cloned stem rust genes from wheat appeared more resistant to the disease than barley plants with naturally-evolved resistance genes.

Dr Brande Wulff, whose group carried out the research, said by exploiting resources not available through traditional breeding, the study is a “clear signal to policymakers” of the need to use modern precision breeding techniques such as GM and gene editing in the field of crop protection.

“This will offer more control over how such resistance genes are deployed including ensuring that they are deployed in stacks that maximise the durability of this precious genetic resource,” he said.

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Dr Asyraf Hatta, first author of the study, added: “We have shown that wheat stem rust resistance genes work in barley which is something that has not been achieved by wide crosses between grass relatives.

“Given that we now know that wheat resistance genes work in barley it is likely that barley resistance will also work in wheat which is a much bigger and more important crop. This might therefore expand the reservoir of resistance genes available to wheat for engineering resistance to its major diseases.”


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