Norfolk-based scientists have launched a £1m project to explore how "gene editing" techniques could protect sugar beet crops from a devastating virus threat.

British Sugar, biotech firm Tropic and Norwich plant science institute the John Innes Centre (JIC) have jointly been awarded £663,443 towards the total project costs from Defra's Farming Innovation Programme.

The research, also supported by the Norwich-based British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), aims to develop plants with natural resistance to virus yellows infections - thereby protecting East Anglia's beet farmers from potentially catastrophic crop losses.

The aphids which carry the disease were previously controlled by neonicotinoid seed treatments, which were banned by the EU in 2019 due to their potential impact on the health of bees.

This January, for the fourth year running, the prevailing virus threat prompted the government to approve a temporary, emergency use of the controversial pesticides - sparking renewed calls for a non-chemical solution to be found. 

It is hoped the new project will bolster natural disease resistance through gene editing, which allows scientists to make precise, targeted changes to a plant's DNA by removing or editing parts of its existing genetic sequence.

The technique differs to genetic modification (GM), as no material is introduced from other species.

Prof Steven Penfield, whose group at the JIC will develop the technology necessary to support the gene-editing of sugar beet, said: "This welcome investment recognises the role of the JIC as a national capability in developing and applying precision breeding approaches such as gene editing to crop protection.

"We look forward to deploying this expertise in partnership with British Sugar and Tropic for the benefit of British sugar beet growers."

The project will use Tropic's Gene Editing induced Gene Silencing (GEiGS) technology platform.

Ofir Meir, chief technology officer at Tropic, said: “The GEiGS technology, which combines elements of precision breeding techniques like gene editing and a naturally occurring immunity mechanism known as gene silencing, is a game-changing platform allowing us to develop improved varieties of sugar beet that are better able to withstand disease - and environmental - pressures to enable much more sustainable cropping practices."

British Sugar agriculture director Dan Green said the funding "will help us make great strides in our work towards protecting the sugar beet crop from virus yellows disease, and potentially other crop diseases in the future."