2 February 1996

ARIAon trail of genes that fit

WHEATS with specific protein packages and spray-on vaccination against disease were among the ripening fruits of biotechnology outlined at last weeks ARIA workshop at IACR-Long Ashton.

Scientists are fast finding the keys to wheat quality, according to Prof Peter Shewry. Within a decade farmers should be growing varieties shot-through with more precise gluten packages to suit particular uses, he told the meeting.

The 50 or more proteins in gluten are "very clear targets" for genetic manipulation. Already six genes controlling up to 10 of those proteins have been isolated at IACR-Rothamsted.

Until recently experiments firing such genes into plant cells were confined to wild species. "But we are now working with commercial cultivars," said Prof Shewry. "We will certainly get wheat in the field in 10 years from this technique."

But such genetic engineering is "just one facet" of biotechnology, stressed Dr Angela Karp, head of Long Ashtons cell biology department. Key benefit is understanding control processes within plants.

The impact of DNA technology is "enormous" because it lets researchers unravel complicated disease and pest defence mechanisms, she explained.

Spin-offs will include a "completely new generation" of systemic "immunising" crop protection compounds, predicted Long Ashtons Prof John Lucas. "Applied like fungicides they will activate the plants natural defence mechanisms."

A wheat mildewicide based on the vaccination principle is already in UK trials and could be on the market by 1999, says a Ciba Agriculture spokesman. &#42

Gene explorer Prof John Lucas is using Arabidopsis to develop plant vaccines to help crops resist disease.