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Thursday, July 15, 1999 Published at 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK


Stunted GM crop may 'help feed world'

Adding the gene to plants makes their stalks shorter

British scientists have identified the gene which controls how high plants grow, a discovery that could improve yields from a host of different crops.

The BBC's Christine McGourty: "This could play an important part in feeding the population of the world"
The research was conducted at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and it spokesman, Dr Ray Mathias, says there are "potential benefits for developing countries".

However, if the gene is proved to be useful it would be inserted into crops using genetic engineering. Andrew Simms of Christian Aid said this was a "genetic roulette", and that there was no guarantee it would help developing countries, or that they would get a "fair deal".

Little big plant

Short or "dwarf" varieties of wheat created by conventional breeding led to the "green revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s. The shorter plants put more effort into producing grain and less into growing stalks - this substantially increased yields.

The dwarf varieties are also better at resisting rain and wind damage.

[ image: Inserting the new gene resulted in the dwarf basmati rice plant on the left]
Inserting the new gene resulted in the dwarf basmati rice plant on the left
"This new work potentially offers a single gene that can be put into a range of different plants to make them dwarfs," says Dr Mathias.

"We have good reason to believe the gene will cause dwarfism and increase yield in a range of different plants, but it's early days yet," he told BBC News Online.

Prime Minister Tony Blair recently criticised the media for giving huge space to "anything which fed the hysteria" over genetically-modified (GM) foods. He told colleagues that positive scientific reports were barely reported.

But protesters have consistently expressed great concern over the effect of GM crops on wildlife and the environment.

Smaller plants, bigger potential

If the gene does work as expected, genetic engineering techniques could quickly create new, high-yielding dwarf varieties. The research was funded by UK taxpayers through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The gene has been patented and Mr Mathias says: "If there are commercial companies who are interested in exploiting the gene, then we would look at licensing the technology to them and making sure the taxpayer got a return on their investment in the basic science."

The cause of dwarfism in wheat has been known for almost 20 years - it results from a plant being relatively insensitive to a plant hormone called gibberellin which makes cells in the stem grow longer.

Food under the microscope
But the scientists at the John Innes Centre found the specific gene responsible for this behaviour in the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. This plant has the best-characterised genome of any in the world.

The researchers also showed that the gene could be used to create dwarf basmati rice plants, suggesting the gene could be used in a wide range of crops.

The research was published in the journal Nature.

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