Scientists believe wheat could boost yields by 15% to 20%.
LONDON, ENGLAND — Rothamsted Research on Nov. 3 submitted an application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seeking permission to carry out field trials for GM wheat on the Rothamsted Farm in 2017 and 2018.

Working in collaboration with researchers at the University of Essex and Lancaster University, the Rothamsted researchers said they have developed wheat plants that carry out photosynthesis more efficiently, a trait they said has the potential to result in higher yielding plants.

University of Essex Christine Raines Prof
Christine Raines

“The efficiency of the process of photosynthesis integrated over the season is the major determinant of crop yield,” said Christine Raines, head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex and principal investigator for the research project. “However, to date photosynthesis has not been used to select for high yielding crops in conventional breeding programs, and represents an unexploited opportunity. But there is now evidence that improving the efficiency of photosynthesis by genetic modification is one of the promising approaches to achieve higher wheat yield potential.”

According to the researchers, traditional breeding and agronomic approaches have maximized light capture and allocation to wheat. The new research suggests that to increase wheat yields efforts should examine improving the efficiency by which energy in the form of light is converted to wheat biomass.

“In this project we have genetically modified wheat plants to increase the efficiency of the conversion of energy from sunlight into biomass,” Raines said. “We have shown that these plants carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in glasshouse conditions. One of the steps in photosynthesis shown to limit this process is carried out by the enzyme. sedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase). We have engineered GM wheat plants to produce increased levels of SBPase by introducing an SPBase gene from Brachypodium distachyon (common name stiff brome), a plant species related to wheat and used as a model in laboratory experiments.”

Elizabete Carmo-Silva, co-investigator in the project at Lancaster University, added, “We have produced two types of plants, one in which two extra copies of SBPase are functional and one in which six extra copies of SBPase are functional. If granted permission to carry out the field trial, we will measure the photosynthetic efficiency of the plants in the field and we will determine total aboveground plant biomass and grain yield on an area basis at full maturity. We will also measure the number of wheat ears on an area basis and the grain number and weight per ear. From this data we will estimate the harvest index, which is the proportion of biomass allocated to the grain.”

Malcolm Hawkesford, head of the plant biology and crop science department at Rothamsted Research and lead scientist for the trial, added that receiving permission to perform a controlled experiment would be “a significant step forward.”

“We will be able to assess in ‘real environmental conditions’ the potential of these plants to ultimately produce more using the same resources and land area as their non-GM counterparts,” Hawkesford said. “These field trials are the only way to assess the viability of a solution that can bring economic benefits to the farmers, returns to the U.K. tax payer of the long-term investment in this research, benefits to the U.K. economy as a whole and the environment in general.”

More information on the project may be found here.

The proposed experiment is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) consortium activities.

Established in 2014, the IWYP represents a long-term global endeavor that uses a collaborative approach to bring together funding from public research and funding organizations from a large number of countries and further seeks to increase impact through public-private partnerships.