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expert reaction to blight-resistant GM potatoes

Work published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B outlines a trial of GM Desiree potatoes that are blight-resistant thanks to the introduction of the Rpi-vnt1.1 gene from wild relatives.


Prof Ian Crute, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, said:

“It was here in Britain, over 170 years ago, that the science of plant pathology was born when this dreadful affliction of potatoes led to the discovery that severe crop loss could result from infectious disease. The fight against blight has been waging ever since. Now finally, we have the knowledge and technology to stack the odds in our favour. Surely, we must ensure that this scientific advance it exploited swiftly and not left on the shelf unexploited. Our global requirement for resilient and sustainable crop production systems is just too important to let this happen”


Prof Melanie Welham, Science Director, BBSRC, said:

“Potatoes are important agricultural products and their susceptibility to blight highlights the challenge of producing food in a sustainable way, while minimising effects on the environment. If we are to explore alternatives to chemicals, we need scientific research on a variety of approaches and technologies that could help us. This BBSRC-funded research provides important evidence to help inform future decisions on how best to meet the food requirements of a growing population.”


Prof Denis Murphy, Head of Genomics and Computational Biology Research Group, University of South Wales, said:

“This report of enhanced resistance to potato blight shows the very real potential of GM technology to address a serious and persistent disease in one of our major staple crops. The main significant of the report is that in this case at least (and possibly others) the transfer of just one or two genes from one type of potato to another can significantly increase resistance to the blight disease.

“This will not always be the case. For example, there are many crop traits that are regulated by many genes which makes the GM approach less useful in such cases. However, where important traits like disease resistance are regulated by a few genes the GM approach offers some real advantages over conventional breeding from wild relatives.

“In my family we have a personal interest in potato blight thanks to our great grandfather (born 1843) who was a pastoral farmer in County Cork in Ireland. He recalled his horror when as a young boy he saw crowds of starving and destitute people fleeing from their ruined potato crops in the late 1840s. Over a million Irish people died during those awful years and the same pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, continues to attack our potato crops to this day.

 “Nowadays we are privileged to live in happier times and it is vitally important that scientific advances, such as that reported by the Sainsbury Laboratory group, are allowed to help with the never ending quest to protect our essential food crops from this and other serious diseases.”


Prof Huw Jones, Head of Cereal Transformation Lab, Rothamsted Research, said:

“Potato breeding is exquisitely difficult and moving disease-resistance from a wild relative to a commercial line by GM is a great way of overcoming these obstacles. Obviously a risk assessment is needed before these can be marketed but this is a great example of publically-funded plant science with a real benefit to UK farming. “


Prof Maurice Moloney, Group Executive of Food, Health and Life Science Industries Group, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation  (CSIRO), said:

“It is exciting to see real data confirming a hypothesis with respect to resistance delivered by GM better than any other approach so far by alternative possibilities.  Just is a step forward that is applicable widely to other crops. If only this approach had been available in 2012, when there were no pesticide free –potatoes.

“Let’s put it together and help the Industry and consumer at the same time.”


Prof Chris Pollock, Aberystwyth University, said:

“This is an excellent example of the way in which biotechnology can add to the plant breeder’s armoury.  With increasing demands for food globally, managing losses from pests and diseases becomes increasingly important and developing resistant varieties is an important part of integrated pest and disease management.  Late blight of potatoes is a difficult disease to control, and using genes from distant relatives is a valuable tool.  Biotechnology gives breeders the opportunity to do this quickly and precisely.

“Unfortunately, the problems in the current European regulatory process, which is expensive and extremely slow, means that this advance by UK scientists is far more likely to help farmers in other countries.”


Prof Joe Perry, University of Greenwich said:

“I welcome this example of a third-generation GM plant, one which has potential benefit for the consumer, the farmer and, by reducing pesticide use, for the environment.  If proper risk assessment were to demonstrate that this potato was as safe for human health and the environment as conventional varieties, it would be difficult to see any objection to its cultivation in the UK.’”


Prof Bruce Whitelaw, Professor of Animal Biotechnology, Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“This is an exciting development which demonstrates the ability of GM technology to provide enhanced genetic traits. Engineering disease resistance in important agricultural products will help provide the much needed increased productivity that is required to provide food security for the many nations of our world.”


Prof Sir David Baulcombe, Professor of Botany, University of Cambridge, said:

“This work illustrates the elegance of GM. You wish to improve a crop variety? Then take a suitable gene from a wild relative and transfer it into the crop. One new gene and one new trait. All of the qualities of the old variety are preserved but with added value. Conventional breeding is good but it’s not as simple – all of the genes of one parent are combined with all of the genes of the other and it takes time to sort out the best gene combination in the progeny. GM does not need this extra time.”


Prof Mark Tester, Professor of Bioscience, KAUST, said:

“These people have put a wild potato gene into commercial potatoes, accelerating breeding. They have delivered benefits for all – reducing pesticide use and increasing food security. I cannot see how those against GM can rationally object to this.”

“This is yet another example of how genetic modification can be used to introduce new variation into crops which goes beyond that found naturally within the gene pool and where this knowledge can be applied for significant benefit to both the environment and global food security.”


Elevating crop disease resistance with cloned genes” by Jones et al. published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on Monday 17th February.



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