The transfer of genes from legumes and oats into wheat will allow the production of cereal crops capable of fixing nitrogen and with resistance to take-all in the next 20 years, according to one scientist.
Giles Oldroyd of the John Innes Centre told delegates at the AIC conference in Peterborough that long-term work which looked across the entire breadth of the plant kingdom was coming up with innovative solutions to food security threats.
"We've found that it's the availability of nutrients, not water, which limits crop productivity around the world. So we're concentrating on finding ways to overcome this."
Cereal crops capable of fixing nitrogen will be available within Prof Oldroyd's research career, possibly in the next 20 years, he predicted. "They're a way off yet, but we have identified that cereals already have the signalling pathway that allows them to undergo mycorhizzal symbiosis."
This pathway makes it possible for beneficial fungi to colonise the roots and help with nutrient uptake, he explained.
"Furthermore, it's very similar to the signalling pathway used by legumes to fix nitrogen. So we can concentrate on making a few novel adaptations to the pathway, which we know is already present, to develop nitrogen-fixing cereals."
Prof Oldroyd's research project is engineering such a pathway in maize. "It can only be done by GM," he confirmed. "But it has huge possibilities for maize crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are currently 20-40% of those in America."
Take-all resistance in wheat will also depend on the use of GM, he continued. "Oats have absolute resistance to take-all, because they produce an anti-fungal compound called avenacin, which prevents the take-all fungus colonising the roots."
In contrast, wheat is very susceptible to the pathogen. "Wheat doesn't make avenacin. But we do have the capability to transfer the oat genes into wheat in order for this to happen."
While GM can create benefits, it isn't the only method available to researchers, he stressed. "Our work on reducing pod shatter in oilseed rape is a good example of an alternative technique."
An understanding of the genetic components of the dehiscence zone in the pod has enabled researchers to look for subtle mutants in a population. "The ideal is to reduce the amount of pod shatter, but not eliminate it completely.
"We've been able to do this by screening a mutant population. The aim is to get this advance out into the field and prevent the 20% loss of yield before harvest."
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The AIC conference also heard from Joanne Denney-Finch on engaging with shoppers over GMs.