Reporter 458, 6 November 2000

Safety first in superspud trial

Microscopic nematode worms that destroy a huge proportion of Bolivia’s staple food crop by feeding on potato roots are the target of a research programme involving Leeds biotechnologists.

Greenhouse trials of a modified Desirée potato, with a parasite-resistant gene transferred to the plant from rice, are under way at the Potato Research Project, Proinpa, in Cochabamba.

Caption: Staple diet – Bolivians have 700 varieties of potatoes to choose from. Picture courtesy of Proinpa, Cochabamba

Bolivia is home to more than 700 known varieties of potato but nematodes drastically reduce achievable yields, especially on poor quality farmland. The 0.5mm worms cause about £70bn of crop losses annually around the world.

Professor Howard Atkinson of the Centre for Plant Sciences has been researching plant-parasitic nematodes for many years and has used protein engineering to modify an inhibitor occurring naturally in rice, introducing it to potatoes which were successfully trialled in Britain.

The modified gene is known to be safe for human consumption, since it is present in all the rice we eat and is very similar to one occurring in human saliva. Its effect on nematodes is to halt growth and prevent, or delay, egg production.

"The worms damage so much of the potato harvest that about twice as much land is used for the crop than would otherwise be needed," said Professor Atkinson.

"A nematode-resistant potato could free up thousands of hectares to produce other crops, without requiring costly and environmentally harmful pesticides."

The transgenic Desirée is thought likely to suit only a limited area of Bolivian farmland but if the trials prosper, it will be distributed to local growers free of charge.

The work has raised awareness in Bolivia on genetically modified crops. Professor Atkinson welcomed this: "We are taking an important role in the debate on whether or not GM crops can benefit the poor and whether a trial like ours, donated by the University, can be made biosafe for Bolivia."

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