ENGLAND – The John Innes Centre, an independent centre for research and training in plant and microbial science, has submitted an application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), seeking to conduct field trials of a Genetically Modified (GM) high-iron wheat line they developed following the successful greenhouse trials in 2019 and 2021.

In 2019 and 2021, field trials at the John Innes Centre of genetically modified high-iron wheat demonstrated that the increased iron content seen previously in greenhouse-grown plants, is equally pronounced in white flour from field-grown wheat grain.

The trial will be conducted in the Centre’s field station in Bawburgh between March and August of each year from 2022 to 2024.

The trial will allow the researchers, led by Professor Cristobal Uauy, to grow the second-generation high-iron wheat plants in the field.

The wheat carries the gene TaVIT2 which encodes for an iron transporter in wheat. This was used to develop the high-iron wheat line wherein more iron is transported to the endosperm, the part of the grain that is milled to produce flour.

During the greenhouse trials, the researchers focused on the fact that small molecules help long-distance transport of iron and zinc in the plant.

Following on from this success, the researchers have developed a second-generation wheat line that has more iron and zinc in the grain which they plan to take to the field for evaluation and hopefully lead to a biofortified product that will be safe for human consumption.

According to the John Innes Centre, the mineral micronutrients content of the greenhouse-grown GM version of the wheat has been shown to be potentially more bio-accessible for uptake in the human gut.

The applications are made under section 111 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and will be considered by the Secretary of State along with any representations relating to any risk of environmental impact.

The Secretary of State is expected to place information on this proposed GMO release on a public register within 12 days of receipt of the application.

Mineral micronutrients deficiencies

Deficiencies in the mineral micronutrients iron and zinc are a global health issue. The iron content of staple crops such as wheat has been difficult to improve using conventional breeding, and as a result many wheat products for human consumption have to be artificially fortified with iron.

Increasing the nutritional quality of crops, known as biofortification, is a sustainable approach to alleviate these micronutrient deficiencies in people.

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