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GM potato trial showing positive signs of blight resistance at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich

The Sainsbury Laboratory is trialling a genetically-modified potato designed to be resistant to blight. Pictured are Prof Jonathan Jones (front) with his team, Dr Marina Pais (centre) and Dr Kamil Witek (back). Picture: The Sainsbury Laboratory.

The Sainsbury Laboratory is trialling a genetically-modified potato designed to be resistant to blight. Pictured are Prof Jonathan Jones (front) with his team, Dr Marina Pais (centre) and Dr Kamil Witek (back). Picture: The Sainsbury Laboratory.

The Sainsbury Laboratory

A genetically-modified (GM) potato designed to resist a devastating plant disease has worked “brilliantly” during the first year of field trials, according to Norwich scientists.

The Sainsbury Laboratory is trialling a genetically-modified potato designed to be resistant to blight. The Sainsbury Laboratory is trialling a genetically-modified potato designed to be resistant to blight.

Late blight is a global problem that can wipe out whole fields of potato crops unless multiple treatments of chemical fungicides are used to combat the infection and ensure a good harvest.

The field trial conducted by The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) on the Norwich Research Park involves incorporating three blight-resistant genes from a wild potato relative into the popular commercial variety Maris Piper.

After the first year of the field trial, scientists observed a marked improvement in late blight resistance, with a stark difference in health between the resistant and non-resistant plants.

Prof Jonathan Jones, who is leading the project, said the initial results offered hope that there could be a way of controlling late blight without the need for chemical fungicide sprays.

Prof Jonathan Jones and Dr Marina Pais inspecting the blight-resistant potato plants developed in the glasshouses at The Sainsbury Laboratory . Photo : Steve Adams Prof Jonathan Jones and Dr Marina Pais inspecting the blight-resistant potato plants developed in the glasshouses at The Sainsbury Laboratory . Photo : Steve Adams

“The first year of the Maris Piper field trial has worked brilliantly”, he said. “We’ve observed resistance to late blight in all the lines.

“We have the technology to solve the problems that affect many people’s livelihoods. Crop diseases reduce yields and require application of agri-chemicals, and this field trial shows that a more sustainable agriculture is possible.”

READ MORE: The Sainsbury Laboratory prepares for blight-resistant GM potato trial

Alongside resistance to blight, next year’s field trials of modified Maris Piper potatoes will also carry traits to improve tuber quality. Two genes will be switched off in the plant, a process known as “silencing”.

One aims to make the new crop less prone to bruise damage, making it easier to ensure the potatoes meet customer quality specifications. The second could reduce blackening and formation of acrylamide when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures – for instance, when frying chips or crisps.

This work is being carried out with a Horticulture and Potato Initiative (HAPI) grant, funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), and run in partnership with Simplot Plant Sciences in the USA and with BioPotatoes Ltd in the UK.

Government approval for the trial requires the GM plants to be contained and prevented from mixing with conventional crops, or being released into the wider environment.

At the end of each season, all harvested material (plant tops and tubers) will be placed in sealed containers and removed to an authorised waste disposal facility. After each season during the three-year trial period, the plot will be left fallow and monitored for volunteer plants and ground-keepers.

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