HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND — A new gene edited variety of wheat being field tested in Europe has exhibited a significant reduction in acrylamide when the flour is baked, according to researchers at Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom.

Rothamsted Research, a pioneer of GM crop trials since the 1990s, in late 2021 was granted permission by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to run a series of field trials in the United Kingdom of wheat that has been genome edited. The experiments were the first field trials of CRISPR-edited wheat anywhere in the United Kingdom or Europe.

According to Rothamsted Research, the new wheat strain was gene-edited to lower the formation of asparagine in the wheat grains. When cooked, asparagine is converted to acrylamide, a potential carcinogen that has been a problem for food manufacturers since being discovered in food more than 20 years ago.     

Results from the field test showed the levels of asparagine (acrylamide’s precursor) in the GE wheat were up to 50% lower than the control variety Cadenza. Once the wheat was ground into flour and cooked, the amounts of acrylamide formed were reduced by up to 45%, according to Rothamsted Research.

Researchers at Rothamsted, led by Professor Nigel Halford, said the field trail was an important step in determining whether the GE wheat would be viable.

“The study showed that gene editing to reduce asparagine concentration in the wheat grain works just as well in the field as under glass,” Halford said. “This is important because the availability of low acrylamide wheat could enable food businesses to comply with evolving regulations on the presence of acrylamide in food without costly changes to production lines or reductions in product quality. It could also have a significant impact on dietary acrylamide intake for consumers.”

He added, “However, GE plants will only be developed for commercial use if the right regulatory framework is in place and breeders are confident that they will get a return on their investment in GE varieties.”

Rothamsted Research said the results of the field trial come at a key time as the region’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is in the final stages of its passage through Parliament. The bill would make provision for the release and marketing of GE crops.