LONDON — Field trials may begin shortly in an effort to introduce a wheat variety in which more iron is directed into the endosperm.

Researchers at the John Innes Center in Norwich in eastern England have applied with United Kingdom regulatory authorities in an effort to begin the trials in April.

The group seeks two small-scale field trials of genetically modified wheat and gene-edited Brassica.

In 2017, researchers at the John Innes Centre identified a gene, TaVIT2, which encodes for an iron transporter in wheat. The research trials would take place at the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research Park, between April and September each year between 2019 and 2022.

“Iron deficiency or anemia is a global health issue, but the iron content of staple crops such as wheat has been difficult to improve using conventional breeding, and as a result many wheat products for human consumption are artificially fortified with iron,” the John Inness Centre said. “Increasing the nutritional quality of crops, known as biofortification, is a sustainable approach to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies.”

The field trial is intended to determine the role of the gene, MYB28 which regulates sulphur metabolism, in field-grown Brassica oleracea; a species that includes many common foods such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts.

The production of sulphur-containing compounds in Brassica vegetables is of economic and nutritional significance due to their health-promoting potential.

According to the John Innes Centre, white flour typically contains between 5 and 8 mg of iron per kg, which is low for human nutrition. As a result, many countries, including the United Kingdom and United States, enrich flour and/or other foods with iron and other nutrients.

“In the U.K., there is a legal requirement to bring the iron concentration of milled flour up to 16.5 mg per kg,” John Innes Centre said. “You will find ‘iron’ as an ingredient on many wheat products, such as packs of flour, sandwiches, confectionery etc.

“Using modern methods of plant breeding, researchers at the John Innes Centre have developed a wheat line that contains 20 mg per kg iron in milled white flour when plants are grown in greenhouse conditions. Thus, in principle there would no longer be a need to add iron as an extra ingredient to wheat flour. Moreover, it was shown that the iron in this white flour is bioavailable, suggesting that food products made from the biofortified flour could contribute to improved iron nutrition.”

Understanding the mechanisms of iron uptake into the endosperm of the plant is crucial for breeders as they explore how to incorporate this knowledge into wheat breeding programs, the John Innes Centre said.

“Iron uptake and transport within plants is highly regulated because, even though iron is essential for plant growth, it is toxic for the plant at high concentrations,” the John Innes Centre said. “Biofortification of the cereal grain therefore requires that the plant accumulates higher concentrations of iron in the relevant tissues without any negative impacts, particularly upon yield or plant health. Plants in this study showed little difference in plant growth and grain yield.”

The applicant, to the U.K. Department of Environment Food & Rural Affairs,  for the wheat field trial is Professor Cristobal Uauy, a project leader the John Innes Centre.