Agri-Tech Week 2018: How genomics and synthetic biology could help East Anglian farms

Agri-Tech Week at the Earlham Institute in Norwich. Pictured from left: Philip Simons (Prime Agricul

Agri-Tech Week at the Earlham Institute in Norwich. Pictured from left: Philip Simons (Prime Agriculture), George Leonard (Home Farm Nacton), Luke Dewing, Karim Gharbi (Earlham Institute), Iain Flint (G’s Growers), and Frank Domoney. Picture: Belinda Clarke / Agri--Tech East. - Credit: Belinda Clarke / Agri--Tech East

The potential of genomics and synthetic biology to unlock better crops for East Anglian farmers was discussed by Norwich scientists at an event aiming to bridge the gap between agriculture and academia.

The workshop at the Earlham Institure, at the Norwich Research Park, was among the first in a series of events being held across East Anglia for Agri-Tech Week – an annual showcase of farming technologies organised by Agri-Tech East.

One of the discussion subjects was: What can genomics do for crop advancement? Scientists said this is was a particularly topical area after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the relatively new technique of gene editing – where DNA is inserted or modified at a specific location in a plant's genome to maximise desirable traits – should be classed as genetic modifiication (GM).

Group leader Prof Anthony Hall said: 'We discussed with Norfolk arable farms that one of the hidden benefit of Brexit is that the UK may develop its own legislation regarding gene-editing, overturning the recent ECJ ruling that gene-editing be considered GM and, as such, be limited to planting and sale in the EU,' he said.

'Allowing gene-edited crops to be grown in the UK would be a huge boost for the UK plant agri-tech Industry and farmers. We discussed how gene editing could allow genetics from heritage wheat to be rapidly moved into commercial cultivars and that this could reduce the inputs in to the crops and produce a higher value product.'

Meanwhile, group leader Dr Nicola Patron explored how 'synthetic biology' could impact on agriculture.

'We had many discussions about the need to improve the competitiveness of UK agriculture,' she said. 'There was an interest in how new methods in genomics and biotechnology could accelerative the development of crops.

'We also discussed how recent pesticides bans are impacting crop yields. Growers and agronomists were particularly interested in our current projects that aim to increase the availability of insect pheromones, which are widely accepted as environmentally-friendly, sustainable alternatives to broad-spectrum pesticides.'

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Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East said events like this were increasingly important to allow end-users, including farmers, to keep up with the rapid pace of new scientific advances.

'Five years ago, no-one talked about gene-editing, which is a relatively new innovation, and similarly synthetic biology has really only been around for seven or eight years,' she said. 'The pace of innovation is so rapid, so these events are important in order that the end users can keep pace as the researchers are developing these new concepts.'

READ MORE: Agri-Tech Week 2018: How farming change is driving tech innovation across East Anglia