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QLD research makes breakthrough in boosting sorghum protein content

Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) Centre Director for Crop Sciences, Professor Ian Godwin, and his research team have significantly boosted protein levels in sorghum.
Photo: QAAFI

Sorghum genes have been edited to dramatically improve the crop's digestibility.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate and decision-making about, gene technology.

Researchers from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation have announced a major breakthrough in lifting the protein content of sorghum using gene editing.

The research team has improved the digestibility of the crop and boosted sorghum protein levels to 15 to 16 per cent, up from the usual nine to 10 per cent.

Professor Ian Godwin explored the research and its potential to reduce costs for feedlot industries and increase demand for Australian sorghum at the TropAg conference in Brisbane in November.

For example, the increased protein is expected to deliver a 50 cent per head reduction in the cost of producing a two-kilogram meat bird.

"The genes of the sorghum plant have been edited to unlock the digestibility level of the available protein," Prof Godwin says.

"Gene editing has enabled us to knock out some of the existing genes, increasing the digestibility of the crop.

"The breakthrough is also expected to generate big interest in the 46 Sub-Saharan African countries, where an estimated 500 million people rely on sorghum as a food source."

Gene editing has enabled us to knock out some of the existing genes, increasing the digestibility of the crop. - QAAFI Centre Director for Crop Sciences Professor Ian Godwin

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics describes sorghum as a highly reliable crop that grows well in hot, dry environments. It is "climate change-ready" and provides food security and income for millions of low-income farmers.

Being developed in partnership with GRDC and a seed company, the new high protein digestible sorghum has been put to the test in field conditions at the University of Queensland's St Lucia Campus in Brisbane - and further evaluation work is planned in the US.

Community attitudes to gene technology

Community attitudes are crucial to the development of the Australian biotechnology sector.

Surveys of community attitudes to biotechnology help gauge Australian public awareness, identify knowledge gaps and track changes in awareness and attitudes over time.

The latest results of a survey exploring community attitudes to gene technology in Australia were released in December. The survey was commissioned by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR).

The survey highlighted a move towards more neutral positions on the technology and an increase in those who aren't sure or don't know what to think about it.

It found that support for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is more variable. This is because it is often conditional, based on regulation and safety being ensured, the type of modification and its purpose.

Overall support for growing GM crops was found to be similar to previous years, with 36 per cent in favour and 32 per cent opposed.

However, there was an increase in the number of 'don't know' responses to survey questions, from 26 per cent in 2015 to 32 per cent in 2019.

The survey data also showed a decline in respondents who are opposed to growing GM crops in their state or territory, from 36 per cent in 2017 to 32 per cent in 2019.

Awareness of the OGTR as an organisation remained on par with previous years at 13 per cent.

The survey found that most people want to hear from the OGTR about issues relating to health effects, transparency, proper testing and evidence of no long-term impacts on people or the environment.

In terms of gene technology information sources, television remains very popular - with TV documentaries, friends and family ranking the highest as trusted sources. The popularity of these sources was followed by specific news websites, Wikipedia and current affairs shows. Social media and Facebook had a very low rating for both information and trust.

Other key survey findings were:

  • Knowledge about what foods in Australia were genetically modified is generally low.
  • Over time, the trend is that those opposed to GM foods and to modifying the genes of plants to produce food is diminishing.
  • People have different attitudes towards different genetic modifications, and there is more support for modifications that are perceived to be less radical.
  • Awareness of whether GM crops were grown in a respondent's state was generally not high. Between 13 per cent and 35 per cent of respondents correctly stated whether GM crops were grown in their state.
  • Most respondents - 62 per cent - felt that biotechnology would improve our way of life in the future. Whereas only 45 per cent felt that GMOs would improve our way of life in the future.
  • Although only 41 per cent of people had any awareness or knowledge of synthetic biology, there was moderate to strong support for it (once given a definition). Nearly half of respondents - 48 per cent - felt it would improve our way of life in the future.
  • More than half of respondents (61 per cent) were aware of gene editing and 52 per cent thought it might improve our way of life in the future, but 19 per cent thought it might worsen our way of life. Gene editing received quite high acceptance (36 per cent) compared with other technologies, when respondents were asked about 'making a small change to an existing gene within a plant, as is done in gene editing'.

Rice research project secures food security funding

A consortium of rice researchers has secured $15 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to advance the "C4 Rice Project".

This research effort aims to produce a high-yielding genetically modified rice that is more resistant to harsh environmental conditions than current varieties.

Leading the consortium, Professor Jane Langdale, from the University of Oxford, described the long-term project as "extremely challenging".

"We are grateful to the foundation for backing the team for a further five years," Professor Langdale says.

"This new award will get us closer to delivering rice lines that will have real impact for smallholder farmers."

Rice uses the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which in hot, dry environments, is much less efficient than the C4 pathway used in other plants such as maize and sorghum. The C4 Rice project aims to 'switch' the photosynthetic pathway used in rice plants from C3 to C4.

"The C4 rice team have made outstanding progress toward cracking the code to make a C4 crop. This will bring the world one step closer to obtaining C4 rice, and to gaining extra productivity without needing more water or nitrogen," says Professor Steve Long, who runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded RIPE Project from the University of Illinois.

By the end of the next research phase in 2024, scientists hope to have experimental field plots of C4 rice established in Taiwan.

Novel approach guards against crop disease

University of Glasgow researchers have developed a new approach using genetic modification to protect some of the world's most important crop species against the common crop bacteria Pseudomonas syringea (Ps).

Plant diseases are said to wipe out about 15 per cent of the world's crops. Of this global loss, a third is caused by bacteria such as Ps.

The Ps species complex includes more than 50 known variants of bacteria, which cause diseases such as Blight, Spot and Bacterial speck.

The University of Glasgow research team has used genetic modification to make plants express a targeted protein antibiotic, or bacteriocin. These plants successfully fought off bacterial infection without damage to the plants or the surrounding environment.

"All major bacterial species produce bacteriocins, so we should be able to use our research as a blueprint to tackle a wide variety of important bacterial diseases in crops like potato, rice and a variety of fruits," says the University of Glasgow's Dr Will Rooney.

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