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Could this high-iron GM wheat help prevent anaemia?

PUBLISHED: 11:37 03 December 2019 | UPDATED: 12:06 03 December 2019

A high-iron GM wheat variety has completed its first season of field trials at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Andrew Davis

A high-iron GM wheat variety has completed its first season of field trials at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Andrew Davis

Andrew Davis

A genetically-modified (GM) wheat plant whose grain makes flour with extra iron to help anaemia sufferers has shown promising results in its first season of field trials in Norwich.

Dr James Connorton and Dr Janneke Balk working on the high-iron GM wheat variety at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Ruby O'GradyDr James Connorton and Dr Janneke Balk working on the high-iron GM wheat variety at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Ruby O'Grady

Crop scientists from the John Innes Centre, who have been testing the biofortified wheat at the Norwich Research Park, found double the amount of iron in white flour milled from the grain, compared to control wheat.

The aim of the research is to produce an ingredient which could be used in white bread to reduce iron deficiency anaemia - a significant global health problem which particularly affects women and young girls.

Prof Cristobal Uauy from the John Innes Centre said: "This problem is currently addressed by adding iron powder to flour and breakfast cereals, which could be replaced by using our high-iron wheat for these food products.

"Wholemeal flour which uses the bran and wheat germ portions of the wheat seed produces more iron but it is not all absorbed into the body. By producing high-iron white flour we can have the biggest impact on health."

A high-iron GM wheat variety has completed its first season of field trials at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Andrew DavisA high-iron GM wheat variety has completed its first season of field trials at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Andrew Davis

The wheat plants in the trials contain two extra sequences of DNA, also from wheat, which cause an accumulation of iron in the grain.

Another observation from the first season of outdoor field trials is that the high-iron grains are slightly smaller than those from the control plants, showing a 10pc decrease in weight - but there are more grains per "spike", so the total weight of grain is similar.

READ MORE: Could GM potato trials lead to blight-resistant future crops?

Dr Janneke Balk from the John Innes Centre, one of the researchers leading the project, said: "We are pleased with progress so far which demonstrates that the method is working in the field. In field trials plants are exposed to different weather conditions which is very different from climate-controlled growth rooms.

"Despite drought conditions this spring, the high-iron wheat variety grew as well as the control wheat, and was harvested in early August."

The field trial was approved by Defra in April, and will be repeated in 2020 and 2021. The trials are conducted over three growing seasons to account for differences in weather patterns from year to year.

The high-iron wheat which emerges from these public-funded trials will be made available for breeding into elite wheat varieties for countries that allow the cultivation of GM crops - which currently does not include the UK.

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