Norfolk GM potato trial at half-way stage

Scientists are waiting for blight to test disease resistance at the half-way stage of a three-year GM potato trial on Norwich Research Park.

In February last year, scientists at the John Innes Centre's Sainsbury Laboratory applied for formal permission to start a trial involving less than 200 GM potatoes.

Initial results for the first year showed that trial plots withstood disease pressure from blight. As yet, blight has not been detected on plants in the latest trial although the recent warmth and rain is ideal for rapid spread of infection.

The first open air GM trial at Colney attracted intense media interest as broadcasters and newspapers in early June last year saw the 192 potato plants, each about eight inches high, in six small plots, cover an area of about two pool tables.

But despite widespread publicity, public response seemed muted, said Prof Jonathan Jones, who leads the trial programme. 'We engaged in a full and open debate and got full regulatory clearances. People did not seem to be too bothered and nobody seemed to be too interested,' he added.

When blight struck early last August, over five days the intense infection devastated the protective or nurse crop of Maris Piper. A plot of Desiree potatoes, with a GM resistance gene, was left virtually unscathed.

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The trial, designed to assess resistance of GM potato lines to naturally-occurring strains of late blight, had produced a result.

And in the latest trial, which covers a similar area, plots have again been established inside a three-metre high security fence. It cost �20,000 to safeguard the 1,000 sq metre area from potential damage and once analysed, the potatoes will be destroyed and not enter the food chain.

'This is where we find out whether it is worthwhile because if you put a resistance gene into a cultivated variety, this will test it against the diversity of plant pathogen races. You have to put it into a field and see how it works.'

Field trials are taking place in Europe by agro-chemical company, BASF, which has two different strains of the most advanced GM blight-resistance in a variety called Fortuna.

However at Colney, they are conducting trials with a variety, Desiree, containing resistance gene, VNT1, taken from a race of wild potatoes.

'It was quite obvious last year that the lines we had were resistant to whatever Mother Nature could throw at them last year,' said Prof Jones. Late blight is estimated to cost the world's farmers about �3.5bn each year and routine fungicide spraying up to 15 times a year may be needed to protect potato crops in Britain.

Ironically, small-scale GM potato trials were carried out by independent researchers at Terrington, near King's Lynn, more than a dozen years ago without incident.