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ETH Zurich involved in GM wheat trial
Swiss National Science Foundation supports field trials

Published: 07.06.2007 06:00
Modified: 06.06.2007 22:58
The Swiss National Science Foundation has approved 27 projects examining a wide range of research questions in the National Research Programme “Benefits and Risks of the Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Plants” (NFP 59). According to the media briefing this Wednesday, the economic, legal and ethical aspects of GM plants will also be studied, not just their biological aspects (1) .

Christoph Meier

ETH Zurich is participating with four projects in the Programme. The first plans to clarify the question of how the fungus resistance of transgenic wheat behaves in open land. The background of this is that powdery mildew and other fungi cause great damage in wheat production and necessitate the use of sprays. This may possibly be avoidable by inserting a specific barley gene into the wheat genome. The gene produces proteins that can degrade fungal cell walls, thus destroying the pests.

Effectiveness of mildew resistance in open fields

The programme led by Christof Sautter, a researcher at ETH Zurich’s Institute for Plant Sciences, plans to study how fungal resistances in genetically modified wheat varieties behave in open fields. This will involve firstly measuring their effectiveness against fungal diseases and secondly estimating how large the potential benefit to agriculture really is.

The field trial with transgenic wheat will involve studying the effectiveness of the mildew resistance during three consecutive years. The experiment is part of a larger field trial by the Wheat Cluster (2) . The latter comprises research groups from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich together with other research partners. The field trials are being conducted in the research institutes of Zurich-Reckenholz and Pully near Lausanne. The ETH Zurich part of the experiment will measure among other things the activity of the resistance genes and the productivity of the wheat varieties. Parallel experiments will check the results of the field trials under glasshouse conditions.

How do beneficial organisms respond to GM wheat?

The experiment entitled “Effect of genetically modified wheat on the diversity and function of soil bacteria that promote plant growth" will be carried out by Monika Maurhofer of the ETH Zurich Institute for Integrative Biology together with a colleague from Lausanne. In the study the researchers will examine bacteria from the Pseudomonas group that live on the roots of useful plants and assist their growth, and are important for soil fertility. They provide the plants with nutrients such as phosphorus and inhibit fungal diseases that damage the plants from the soil. Genetically modified agricultural plants often possess resistances – e.g. against the powdery mildew fungus – that might affect not only the pests on the leaves but also soil bacteria.

The intention of the project is to help clarify whether the effect of transgenic wheat on the composition and beneficial activity of Pseudomonas bacteria in the soil is different to that of conventional wheat varieties. These studies should enable conclusions about interactions between transgenic plants and bacteria that promote soil fertility. The effect on the occurrence and diversity of Pseudomonas bacteria on the roots will be determined for transgenic and conventional wheat plants during the field trial by the Wheat Cluster. The extent to which these bacteria can play their part as organisms that are useful to plants will also be measured under various conditions in laboratory experiments. Thus the project will also yield fundamental data on the question of whether useful bacteria in the root space of cultivated plants are suitable as indicators of soil fertility.

Both of the ETH Zurich experiments with GM wheat still need approval from the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (3) .

A simulation of GM maize (corn)

The third of the ETH Zurich experiments is led by ETH Zurich Professor Peter Stamp. He will use a blue variety of maize to simulate the behaviour of GM maize. If transgenic cultivated plants are farmed alongside conventional cultivated plants in open fields or are processed and distributed via the same routes, the seed corn may mix together to some extent.

ETH Zurich researcher Peter Stamp plans to use coloured maize grains to simulate the spread of GM maize.

Seed contamination of this sort could be a problem, especially in Switzerland’s small-scale agriculture. Special statistical methods are needed to estimate the impact of a particular level of seed corn contamination on the harvested mixture.

The aim of the project is to follow the coloured grains in conventional maize seed from sowing to harvesting the plants. The plan is to establish from this how seed corn contaminants manifest themselves in the harvested crop. The experiments use exclusively conventional maize varieties. The principle is that the coloured grains added to the seed corn will finally reappear to a certain extent on the cobs of the harvested plants. To test the method under actual conditions, the plan is to add 1% of blue grains to the seed corn of 40 Swiss maize producers. The maize plants with coloured grains will be assessed at harvest time. This project will also last three years.

What’s your attitude to green gene technology?

The future of genetic engineering depends decisively on its acceptance by the public. The role played in this by the fairness of the decision process and the public’s anxieties and confidence are the content of the project by Professor Michael Siegrist of ETH Zurich’s Institute for Environmental Decisions.

Up to now the protagonists have concentrated mainly on informing the public when communicating the potential risks of genetic technology. On the other hand little attention was paid to the role of fair decision processes and to the public’s fears and confidence. It is suspected that fairness might increase the public acceptability of risky technologies. A decision-making process is perceived as fair if the authorities are credible and treat all the participants with respect and grant them the right to have a say.

The new study will examine the role of fairness, worries and trust in the communication of gene technologies. One of the main questions is whether a fair decision process automatically leads to greater acceptance, or whether possibly only the result is decisive, which might be the case if people regard the use of gene technology as an important moral question.

To discover the relationships, Siegrist and his colleagues will show fictitious stories about the release of genetically modified plants (GMP) to a representative number of people from German-speaking Switzerland. These stories will describe either a fair or an unfair decision-making process and in some of the variants of the stories the plants will ultimately be released, in others they will not. Afterwards the test persons will be asked appropriate questions. A number of people living near to the large open-field trial of genetically modified wheat will also be asked the same questions. In addition a new computer-assisted method will be developed to allow the personal attitudes to GMP to be recorded.

(1 Summary of the NFP 59 projects (
(2 Home page of the Wheat Cluster ( / and interview „Wir wollen konstruktive Beiträge zur Gentech-Diskussion liefern“ Beat Keller from the University of Zurich, who is also involved in the field trial with transgenic wheat: (
(3 Cf. the “ETH Life” Report „ETH und Uni wollen aufs Feld“:

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