Good future in wheat experiments – IACR
IN the rush to condemn the use of genetic engineering to insert pesticide resistance into crops, critics risk blunting a valuable tool which offers tremendous scope for bettering the lot of all consumers.
That is the view of one IACR-Rothamsted researcher exploring GM technology to improve wheat varieties.
Huw Jones is involved in a three-year EU project to pinpoint the genes controlling bread-making quality. "One of the spin-offs is that we may be able to create flours acceptable to people who currently have to stick to a gluten-free diet because of an allergy."
Unlike some other GM techniques which involve transferring genes across species, the Rothamsted work is focused on wheat, says Dr Jones. "We are not, for example, putting fish genes into wheat." In that sense the wheat quality trials are very much akin to conventional breeding, except that the outcome is more predictable, he says.
"Once we understand more about wheat gluten and which genes control the bit that causes the allergic reaction, we should be able to engineer them out. I should have thought that would get widespread interest."
Already many of the genes linked to the high molecular weight proteins, or glutenins, associated with good bread-making have been identified, he says. "We have a range of genes that we can transfer from one wheat variety to another and which make a difference to the functional properties of the resulting flour."
Although the Utopian dream of turning a European feed wheat into a Candian-style hard red bread-making wheat remains some way off, much progress has been made, he says. "We now have the potential of getting varieties that grow well in Europe to produce much better quality flour."
Dr Jones says concern over so-called marker genes that convey antibiotic or pesticide resistance when the desired genes are inserted is no longer justified. "We do still use some markers in our academic studies, but we have new ways of identifying them and they can now be kept separate in applied projects.
"Gene segregation means we can select only those we need to breed from and ignore those with markers. It is a step forward that should help remove one of the previous criticisms that this was dirty science." *
• EU-funded research projects.
• Better baking quality.
• Non-allergenic flours.
• Marker gene concerns allayed.