20 November 1998

High-yield hybrids is GM aim

Genetically modified

cereals are a key goal for

Novartis Seeds, owner of UK-

based breeder New Farm

Crops. Charles Abel visited

its US research centre to

find out more

HIGHER yields from hybrid wheat and barley, improved malting quality and enhanced disease resistance – those are some of the benefits growers can expect from genetically modified crops which Novartis Seeds is developing in the US.

Over 200 scientists already work at its research centre in Raleigh, North Carolina. A £16m expansion programme will add more researchers and facilities over the next two years and £375m is being invested over 10 years in a gene mapping facility in San Diego.

Such investment appears worthwhile, already producing insect tolerant GM maize and herbicide tolerant GM soya varieties which seized significant US market shares in 1998.

But for UK growers transformed cereals are likely to be the most significant fruits of the centres work.

The company claims to have perfected the fine art of genetically modifying wheat and barley. While other companies achieve a success rate of 0.1-2%, Novartis technicians average 34-35%, thanks to a unique approach to growing plants from modified embryos, says wheat transformer Janet Reed.

Seed production is also faster. Initially it took 18 months to produce fertile second generation seed. Now it takes less than a year.

Key to the entire cereals project is the development of hybrid varieties. Not only will those boost yields through hybrid vigour, they will also provide the ideal vehicle for delivering novel traits to farmers, claims Novartis.

Current cereal hybrids, including Monsantos Cockpit wheat, are produced by growing strips of pollen donor and seed producing lines in a field, spraying on a gametocide and harvesting hybrid seed from the seed producing strips.

"The chemical is expensive and its success is dependent upon application at the right time and in the right conditions," says Novartiss Erica Pascal. Together with the need to discard pollen producing lines that can make hybrid seed very costly,.

By contrast Novartiss system of inducible sterility maximises seed production because parent lines can be planted as a blend. Genetic engineering is used to insert novel genes which respond to a chemical spray so the male line produces pollen only and the female line produces no pollen.

The whole field can then be harvested, avoiding the need for segregation, says Dr Pascal. The chemical switch is also less costly and less sensitive to spraying conditions than a gametocide.

Unique approach

"We believe this approach is unique and we are well down the road to validating it in the field. It will deliver high yields through heterosis and offers the chance to bring new characters into cereals via genetic engineering."

Hybrids also give Novartis a secure method of profiting from its GM cereal technology. Other companies need licensing, technology use agreements or terminator genes to prevent farmers saving seed from non-hybrid GM crops.

By producing a lower performing diverse range of plants when sown for a second year, hybrids offer a less confrontational method of ensuring income from year-on-year seed sales, says Dr Pascal.

Genetically modified cereals are already a reality for Novartis researchers in the US. The goal now is to develop higher yielding hybrids with traits to tempt cereal growers both in the US and Europe.