1 March 2002

Gene mapping friendly face of GM technology

By Charles Abel

GENETICALLY modified crops may dominate the headlines. But a quieter genetic revolution could do far more to boost the fortunes of Britains farmers.

"GM is only one easily recognised byproduct of genetic research," says John Snape, head of cereals research at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

"The quiet revolution is happening in gene mapping, helping us understand crops better. That is up and running and could have a far greater impact on agriculture."

By matching useful traits to positions on the genetic maps of key crop species it is helping to direct conventional breeding, he said at the launch of the RASEs Year of Science last week.

Such gene-mining is now becoming far more efficient, offering the prospect of significant improvements in conventionally-bred varieties.

Indeed, with GM crops stalled in Europe breeding, companies are investing much more in genomics, says Prof Snape. "The level of investment suggests breeders believe it will pay off."

There really are no downsides, particularly in terms of public perception, he adds. Unlike GM technology, genomic research only uses genetic material from within a crop species, to aid conventional plant breeding.

Indeed, Greenpeace is investigating the potential for such marker-assisted technology to replace GM.

"It is accelerating very rapidly, with huge investment from the public and private sector," Prof Snape continues.

In wheat new sources of resistance to Septoria and fusarium ear blight and improved grain quality to match specific end uses have already been pinpointed, plus sweetness and vitamin content in peas and anti-pod shattering in oilseed rape.

Introducing those traits into modern varieties is now down to conventional breeding techniques, with commercial lines expected soon.

GM technology is stalled in Europe, he admits. "There are public perception problems and the technology itself is still not optimised, with antibiotic and herbicide resistance genes still needed and bits of bacterial DNA hanging about.

"Whether that poses any danger is debatable, but it is not desirable."

But he expects those issues to be resolved. "UK farmers will be growing GM crops within five years. Europe needs to get restarted on this or it will be left behind.

"We also need it to provide the benign agriculture people want. A disease resistant GM crop helps reduce the need for sprays." &#42

Gene mapping is ready to improve variety performance, says JICs John Snape.

&#8226 Quiet revolution.

&#8226 Gene-mining new traits.

&#8226 Aids conventional breeding.

&#8226 Huge investment.

&#8226 Accelerating fast.

&#8226 No public downsides.