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Cambridge’s Crop Science Centre to begin field trial of GM and gene-edited barley



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A field trial of genetically modified and gene-edited barley is beginning this month.

It will evaluate whether improving crop interactions with naturally occurring soil fungi could promote more sustainable food production.

It is hoped the trial will show how the need for synthetic fertilisers could be reduced, which would improve soil health.

Prof Giles Oldroyd
Prof Giles Oldroyd

Researchers at the Crop Science Centre - an alliance between the University of Cambridge and the crop research organisation NIAB - will assess whether the changes can help crops absorb water more efficiently, along with nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil - two essential nutrients often provided through synthetic fertilisers.

Synthetic fertilisers may increase crop productivity, but their excessive application in high and middle-income countries causes environmental pollution that reduces biodiversity and produces greenhouse gas emissions.

Fertilisers are also often too expensive or unavailable to local farmers in low-income countries, limiting food production, which contributes to hunger and poverty in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where most people depend on farming to support their families.

Professor Giles Oldroyd, Russell R Geiger professor of crop science, who is leading the work, said: “Working with natural and beneficial microbial associations in plants has the potential to replace or greatly reduce the need for inorganic fertilisers, with significant benefits for improving soil health while contributing to more sustainable and equitable approaches to food production.

“There is an urgent need for ecologically sound approaches to food production that can satisfy the demands of a growing global population while respecting limits on natural resources. We believe biotechnology can be a valuable tool for expanding the options available to farmers around the world.”

The trial will evaluate a barley variety genetically modified to boost expression levels of the naturally present NSP2 gene, which increases its capacity to engage with mycorrhizal fungi.

Varieties of barley that have been gene edited to suppress their interaction with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi will also be tested.

This will allow scientists to quantify how the microbes support plant development by assessing the full spectrum of interactions.

The researchers will measure yield and grain nutritional content in varieties with an enhanced capacity to engage the fungi and those in which it has been suppressed, while comparing both to the performance of a typical barley plant.

Prof Oldroyd said: “Barley has properties that make it an ideal crop for studying these interactions. The ultimate goal is to understand whether this same approach can be used to enhance the capacity of other food crops to interact with soil fungi in ways that boost productivity without the need for synthetic fertilisers."

Production under high and low phosphate conditions will be assessed in the trial, which will also investigate additional potential benefits of the relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, such as protecting crops from pests and disease.

The plants and seeds in the trial will not enter the food chain, in line with UK regulations governing the planting of genetically modified crops here.

Barley is a self-pollinating crop, with very low rates of cross-pollination with other barley plants. But the outer edge of the trial will have a 3-metre-wide strip of conventional barley to function as a buffer to reduce escape of pollen outside of the trial and no barley, other cereals or grasses will be cultivated or allowed to grow within 20 metres of the trial.

There will be oversight conducted by Defra and its Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE.) Inspections will take place during the trial, carried out by the Genetic Modification Inspectorate, part of the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. Reports on these will be made public.

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