ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Date:  30 October 2000


Thanks to Jeremy Bartlett for forwarding this article which again shows that traditional plant breeding can produce so-called "super crops" without the GM risks, and as billions are poured into GM products with all their patentable, profitable potential for researchers and corporations, note the significant final sentence of this article:

"...since the original source of funding for this project has ended, it is likely to be many years before Tritipyrum [the non-GM salt tolerant wheat] is available on the world market."

[see also: BIOSPINOLOGY AND SUPER-BROCCOLI!  How "super-broccoli" was hyped by the "science commmunicators" ]

Eastern Daily Press  - 26 October 2000

"Science on the Doorstep" by Dr. Belinda Clarke.

What do you get if you cross a wheat plant with a wild grass, and add a dash of a chemical from crocus flowers used to treat gout?

A new salt-tolerant cereal species, of course...

Wheat plants become very sensitive to salt when they flower.  This makes a lot of the world’s surface unsuitable for wheat growing.

Sometime the soil itself may be too salty, and in dry countries where crops are irrigated, the brackish water used for watering may kill the wheat.

So scientists at the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park set out to develop a new salt-tolerant cereal.  They began with Sand couch, a wild grass found on the edges of the Black Sea, which can tolerate salt levels that are up to 70 per cent of those found in sea water.

Their aim was to introduce the salt-tolerant characteristics from Sand couch into the two wheat species used for making pasta and bread.

The ears on each wheat plant were first individually "emasculated."  This involved using tweezers painstakingly to remove all the "male"parts of the plant (which produce pollen).

This left only the "female" parts on the wheat plants, which were protected by covering with a plastic bag.

A day or so later, the bags were removed and pollen from the couch grass was brushed onto these "female" parts of the wheat plant, again, by hand.
This cross-pollination resulted in hybrid plants that were sterile.

For a plant to be fertile, it needs two sets of chromosomes- the "packets" of genetic information.  Normally, a plant contains two sets of chromosomes - one set from each parent.  But in the case of the wheat/sand couch hybrid, the two sets of chromosomes were from different species and so were incompatible with each other.  This prevented the plant from flowering properly.

This often happens in plant breeding, so a chemical trick was used.

The hybrid plants were treated with colchicine, a chemical extracted from Crocuses and used to treat gout in humans.  One of its effects on young plants is to cause the chromosomes to double in number.

Treating the  wheat/sand  couch hybrids restored the plants’ fertility, as after the doubling treatment, each chromosome  had  an  identical, compatible partner.  The resulting new variety was named "Tritipyrum."

The next step was to test the salt tolerance of Tritipyrum.

While wheat is killed at less than half-strength sea water, Tritipyrum can survive and produce seed if irrigated with half-strength sea water.

Tritipyrum also has another advantage over its parents in certain situations. In countries such as Iran, cattle are grazed on fields of wheat in winter. Because this new variety is also semi-perennial, it continues to produce new growth for several months.

So Tritipyrum could be grown on both good and salt-affected soils, serving a dual purpose as both a forage and a grain crop.
Despite the exciting preliminary results, this work is still a long way from the market.

There is a lot more breeding to do, to ensure the varieties produced from the experimental material would be high yielding and locally adapted to different areas of the world.

And since the original source of funding for this project has ended, it is likely,  to  be  many  years  before Tritipyrum is available on the world market.

Eastern Daily Press, Saturday 26 October 2000, p34.

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