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British Sugar secures £660k government funding for gene editing research

14 February 2024

British Sugar is delighted to have secured just over £660,000 in grant funding from the Government, which in conjunction with its own funding will further its research into how gene editing can be used to benefit the British sugar beet crop.

The funding from Innovate UK’s Farming Futures R&D Fund, which was awarded jointly to British Sugar, agricultural biotechnology company Tropic and the world-leading plant science institute the John Innes Centre (JIC), will leverage gene editing to develop natural Virus Yellows resistance in sugar beet. The British Beet Research Organisation – the UK’s beet sugar industry’s dedicated research centre – will also support the project.

The project’s full budget is £1m, of which £663,443 is grant funded by the Government, and the remainder by British Sugar, Tropic and JIC.

The project will use Tropic’s Gene Editing induced Gene Silencing (GEiGS®) technology platform to introduce minimal, precise genetic changes to redirect sugar beet’s own natural defence mechanisms towards enabling resistance to Virus Yellows – a crop disease spread by aphids, which had a severe impact on the homegrown sugar industry in 2020, with significant impacts on the livelihoods of British sugar beet growers.

Ultimately, successful project outcomes will protect British sugar beet farmers from potentially catastrophic losses to Virus Yellows disease, increase crop productivity, resilience, and sustainability, while supporting progression towards net zero emissions in English agriculture. It will also build technical capabilities in sugar beet gene editing for the UK and, more generally, develop other traits to protect and enhance the crop.    

Dan Green, British Sugar Agriculture Director, said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this funding, which will help us make great strides in our work towards protecting the sugar beet crop from Virus Yellows disease, and potentially other crop diseases in the future. We look forward to continuing to work with our partners, Tropic and the John Innes Centre, to progress this research over the coming years, for the benefit of the whole UK beet sugar industry.”

Ofir Meir, Chief Technology Officer at Tropic, said: “The GEiGS® technology, which combines elements of precision breeding techniques like gene editing and a naturally occurring immunity mechanism known as gene silencing, is a game changing platform allowing us to develop improved varieties of sugar beet that are better able to withstand disease - and environmental - pressures to enable much more sustainable cropping practices.”

Professor Steven Penfield, whose group at the John Innes Centre will develop the technology necessary to support the gene-editing of sugar beet, said: “This welcome investment recognises the role of the John Innes Centre as a national capability in developing and applying precision breeding approaches such as gene editing to crop protection. We look forward to deploying this expertise in partnership with British Sugar and Tropic for the benefit of British sugar beet growers.”

Dr Stella Peace, Innovate UK Executive Director for the Healthy Living and Agriculture Domain, said: "The portfolio of innovative projects spans from the early stages of ideation and feasibility testing to advanced development and demonstration. This dynamic blend of innovators reflects our commitment to supporting the entire innovation journey, fostering groundbreaking ideas and propelling projects towards successful commercialisation."

Notes to editors:
  • Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation, is creating a better future by inspiring, involving and investing in businesses developing life-changing innovations.
  • Innovate UK provides targeted sectors with expertise, facilities and funding to test, demonstrate and evolve their ideas, driving UK productivity and economic growth.
  • Gene Editing induced Gene Silencing (GEiGS® - harnesses naturally occurring immune mechanisms of RNA interference (RNAi). GEiGS® introduces minimal, precise changes that are non-transgenic in the host’s non-coding RNA genes to redirect their silencing function towards any target of choice for example, regulating expression of an endogenous host gene to alter nutrient composition, yield and more, or directly targeting exogenous genes to build resistance against a range of pests and pathogens.
  • This approach has been enabled by the recent passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023.
  • In 2020, the UK beet sugar industry suffered an extreme and unprecedented impact of Virus Yellows disease, with at least 40% of the crop affected nationally, and overall yields were down 25% on the five-year average. Work has since been ongoing to protect the crop from this disease.
  • Read more about the beet sugar industry’s wider work to tackle Virus Yellows in our Virus Yellows Pathway brochure.
  • Read UKRI's press release here