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UK: Norfolk GM potato trial withstands blight


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- Michael Pollitt, Eastern Daily Press August 26, 2010

A trial plot of genetically-modified potatoes at Norfolk's John Innes Centre has withstood five days of intense late-blight infection.

Scientists spotted blight last week on the small trial plots of potatoes at Colney, which include GM resistance genes taken from wild relatives.

The initial results, after less than a week of late blight, appear to indicate that one plot of Desiree with a GM resistance gene, has stood up to the disease pressure.

However, scientist Prof Jonathan Jones, who has been leading the three-year trial involving 192 GM potato plants, stressed that it was far too early to jump to conclusions.

“I'm pretty happy with the indications but I'm also cautious because we have not done any proper analysis of the data. First impressions appear to show that one of the two genes tested has conferred a degree of protection on the plants.”

“We'll be looking into the reasons why. We have got quite a bit of analysis to do,” said Prof Jones, group leader at the JIC's Sainsbury Laboratory.

He said that the trial, which was given official clearance by Defra, was to assess the resistance of GM potato lines to naturally-occurring strains of late blight.

The scientists planted the eight-inch high Desiree potatoes in six blocks, each of four rows of eight in an area about the size of two pool tables. Other conventional potatoes, Maris Piper, were planted as a control alongside the plots.

Prof Jones said that impact of the disease was “visually obvious” on the ordinary potato varieties.

He said that all the potatoes from the trial plots, which had been planted inside a three-metre high metal fence costing about £20,000 to protect them from opponents of GM crops, would not enter the food chain. “Our licence stipulates that all the potatoes must be destroyed,” he added.

The initial results indicated that one of the GM trial plots, MCQ1, had not withstood the disease pressure. "But the other, VNT1, which confers resistance to the widespread and destructive new “superblight” Blue 13 strain in the laboratory, looks fine," said Prof Jones.

All the potatoes, which were planted outside in the first week of June, had been grown in a greenhouse until the official permission for the trial had been given.

Scientists screened wild potato relatives to look for natural resistance, which was identified. Two different resistance genes were then cloned and introduced into potato variety Desiree for the three-year trial.

The public-funded trial programme aims to assess effectiveness against last blight, which costs farmers an estimated £3.5bn worldwide each year.
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