EUROPE – A gene-edited (GE) wheat variety in Europe has been found to achieve a 45% reduction in acrylamide, a potential carcinogen when the flour is baked.
The study, which commenced in 2021, was conducted by Rothamsted-based Research and used Crispr/Cas9 gene-editing technology to create Cadenza wheat plants with a lower level of the naturally occurring amino acid asparagine in grains.
The goal to reduce amino acid asparagine is due to its potential to be converted to acrylamide during cooking.
The results published in the Journal of Plant Biotechnology showed that levels of asparagine (acrylamide’s precursor) in the GE wheat were up to 50% lower than the control variety Cadenza and once ground into flour and cooked, the amounts of acrylamide formed were also significantly reduced by up to 45%.
Prof Nigel Halford, the research lead, pointed out that the field trial was an important step in determining whether the new GE wheat would be viable.
Indoor trials under glass had proven successful, but only by planting out in experimental fields could the research team be sure that the new strain could deliver for farmers.
“The study showed that gene editing to reduce asparagine concentration in the wheat grain works just as well in the field as under glass,” said Nigel.
While looking for approval in 2021, Nigel pointed out that Acrylamide has been a very serious problem for food manufacturers since being discovered in food in 2002 adding that the fact that it causes cancer in rodents and is ‘probably carcinogenic’ for humans.
By reducing consumer exposure to acrylamide, the new wheat variety can help lower cancer risk among the population while at the same time help food businesses to comply with regulations on the presence of acrylamide in their products.
The breakthrough comes as the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which will make provision for gene-edited crops to be developed and grown in England, is in the final stages of passing through parliament.
A controversial technology in Europe
Although gene technology has been heralded by industry players as game-changing, the use of CRISPR technology remains controversial among other quarters.
This follows a landmark European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in 2018 that concluded that organisms obtained by new genomic techniques (NGTs), such as CRISPR, should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.
However, the EU’s highest court recently concluded that organisms obtained by in-vitro random mutagenesis, are excluded from the bloc’s rules governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) a move welcomed by industry players but lambasted by green groups.
In support of the study results, Nigel revealed that the GE plants will only be developed for commercial use if the right regulatory framework is in place and breeders are confident that they will get a return on their investment in GE varieties.
Looking forward, the researchers seek further reduce acrylamide levels as a second trial of wheat that has been developed and is now in the ground.