GM trials a success: researchers

Kate MatthewsCountryman

The first year of salt-tolerant genetically modified barley trials near Corrigin have been hailed a success by researchers from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG).

ACPFG researcher Stuart Roy said that in low salt areas, GM barley yielded 20 to 30 per cent higher than non-GM barley and in high salt areas, there was 50 to 70 per cent more grains per plant.

Dr Roy said the trial had been a success and gave researchers hope for trials in the future. "The aim was to test the field site and to see if our most advanced and promising lines worked in the field," Dr Roy said.

Researchers used small plots to grow GM and non-GM barley, as well as non-GM wheat at Corrigin, which was selected for its salinity.

Dr Roy said that the salt-tolerant GM barley performed well in the glasshouse, but his team needed to test grain yields in the field.

"Ideally the salt-tolerant plants should produce a comparable amount of grain to non-GM plants on normal soils, and have better yields in salty conditions," he said.

At Corrigin, the salt-tolerant GM barley plants were larger, had more tillers and produced more grain per plant than the non-GM barley.

Dr Roy said the technology was still at least 15 years away before it became available to farmers and the salt-tolerant traits tested this year would need to be crossed into commercially relevant cultivars and tested further.

Non-GM wheat was also grown at Corrigin to see how much growth was affected by the salty conditions and will pave the way for wheat trials at the site in the future.

This year, Dr Roy said researchers hoped to sow at the same time as other farmers in the region after delayed regulatory approval held up sowing last year.

Late rains allowed the plants to survive and be harvested at the same time as other crops in the area.

Dr Roy's team will repeat the trials this year to check that the salt-tolerant GM barley produces reliable yields across years and will later extend to other sites.

There are also three more promising salt-tolerant barley lines in glasshouse trials that will soon be ready to move to the field.

In Merredin, the Department of Agriculture and Food's New Genes for New Environments facility field trials of multiple research lines of GM barley and wheat are being analysed.

CSIRO Future Grains team leader Matthew Morell said research lines looking at nitrogen-use efficiency in barley and wheat and a gene that alters plant growth, development and yield components in wheat were trialled.

Dr Morrell said the results - and those from Narrabri and Canberra - would be published for scientific peer review before they were released publicly.

"It's important that we get all the data together and get it statically analysed and interpreted before we go ahead," Dr Morrell said. "Its important to note these are research trials.

"They are not trials leading to commercialisation of the particular lines - that would be a separate process that would have to be entered into if our trials were successful."

Mr Morrell said a decision had not been made on continuing the trials this year but the option was available under the licence conditions.

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