GM wheat in iron, zinc trial

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Cally DupeCountryman
Camera IconWheat. Credit: Cally Dupe

Genetically modified wheat which could one day help millions of people with iron and zinc deficiencies is likely to be planted in WA within two years, after the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator approved a five-year project.

University of Melbourne researchers have secured a five year licence to run GM wheat field trials in WA, NSW and Victoria between now and December 2023.

The university’s plant biologist Alex Johnson and his colleagues have engineered the GM wheat plants, which produce white grain with extra iron and zinc.

Wheat grains usually contain about 30 parts per million of iron, with researchers wanting to increase that to 40 to 50ppm to address iron deficiencies in humans.

Mr Johnson is investigating up to 100 potential trial sites in the three States, including WA’s New Genes for New Environments Facilities at Katanning and Merredin.

He recently wrapped up four years of GM wheat trials at those sites, with Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

There is also the potential to partner with local farmers.

Alex Johnson.
Camera IconAlex Johnson. Credit: Joe Vittorio

The new trials will assess the performance of the GM wheat plants under field conditions, with the goal of producing high-iron, high-zinc wheat for humans to eat.

According to Mr Johnson, traditional breeding techniques have failed to produce high-iron wheat, which would “improve human nutrition in developing countries”.

“The best way to increase the iron and zinc is through genetic modification,” he said.

“We have the wheat plants with significantly more iron and zinc, and the next part of our research is to make sure they grow well in the fields.”

Mr Johnson said he chose WA because it was a production powerhouse and accounted for about half of Australia’s total wheat production.

“If we would like our wheat to be adopted in the Australian wheat industry, it needs to grow well in WA,” he said.

“WA plays such a major role in wheat production in this country.”

During the first year, the University of Melbourne’s trials can be conducted at two sites of up to 4ha.

From then on, trials can be planted at up to 10 trial sites each year, with a maximum combined area of 20ha a year.

Mr Johnson is eyeing off a small site in Victoria for his first trial, which he hopes to seed by June.

He said the GM wheat trial was unlikely to be planted in WA this year because he needed to bulk up seed. A successful Victorian trial could have a WA trial start next year.

Mr Johnson’s previous WA trials also focused on the growth rates of GM wheat, with seeds had been biofortified to have increased iron and zinc levels.

“We found that our wheat grows great,” he said. “We were able to show that in those trials, the high-iron, high-zinc trait held up in the field.

“We now have really expanded our program, and I will be trialling many different types of GM wheat during the next five years.”

The GM wheat contains genes derived from wheat, rice and other plants.

The genes improve iron transport from roots to the rest of the plant, increasing iron storage levels in grain and improving iron bio-availability when grain is consumed.

GM wheat faces a range of hurdles before ever becoming deregulated and commercialised.

“There is no GM wheat commercialised anywhere in the world,” Mr Johnson said.

“So the big hurdle would be to go through the deregulation process, and a big part of that deregulation process is field trials.

If commercially adopted, Mr believes GM wheat enriched with iron and zinc would fetch farmers a higher price than normal wheat.

The University of Melbourne’s licence to plant GM wheat is the second granted by the OGRT during the past year.

In July, it licensed the CSIRO to conduct a field trial on bread and durum wheat plants, which had been genetically modified to improve their resistance to rust diseases.

Those trials are currently under way for five years at in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales, assessing the performance of the GM wheat plants.

In granting the licence, the OGTR said Melbourne University would have to adhere with a strict range of conditions, including when and where the trial takes place, the size, and how scientists control the spread of GM wheat.

All trial sites must be isolated from other wheat crops, with grain safely transported and stored, and all of the GM destroyed at the end of the trial.

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