Case study


30 March 2023

Sustainable solutions to protect the beet crop from disease

At British Sugar, we want to ensure the sugar beet crop is grown in the most sustainable way possible, especially when it comes to protecting the crop from diseases which may damage yields – harming both sugar production and farmers’ livelihoods.

After Virus Yellows disease – a crop disease spread by aphids - had an extreme and unprecedented impact on the UK’s sugar beet crop in 2020, with some growers seeing their yields destroyed by as much as 80 per cent, the industry launched a taskforce to consider the best way forward to sustainably protect the crop in the long term. With the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act now passed into law, one solution is gene editing, which sees precision plant breeding techniques used to change a selected, very specific sequence within the genome of a crop.

British Sugar has invested in a collaboration with agricultural biotechnology company Tropic to explore how gene editing can be used in sugar beet to target Virus Yellows, thus protecting crop yields sustainably and reducing the need for pesticide use on the crop. The project will use Tropic’s proprietary GEiGS® (for Gene Editing induced Gene Silencing) technology platform, to make minimal and precise gene edits in sugar beet, enabling the crop to have natural and durable genetic resistance to Virus Yellows.

The work involves leveraging sugar beet’s own natural defence mechanism, known as gene silencing or RNA interference (RNAi), to target the viral infection. We will achieve this through precisely editing highly expressed non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) in beet to redirect their inherent silencing activity towards the virus.  

We expect the GEiGS®-based designs to be generated by early 2024, at which point they can then be passed to commercial seed breeders to undertake the editing process and integrate the Virus Yellows resistance trait into commercial sugar beet varieties. This process will take about 5 years before Virus Yellows resistant sugar beet seed is commercially available for use.

In the meantime, we will continue to develop partially tolerant varieties through traditional seed breeding methods, alongside using chemical seed treatments, to help bridge the gap. 

Regarding the project, Dan Green, British Sugar’s Agriculture Director, said “We have a need to develop more sustainable solutions for sugar beet growers. In securing long-term sugar beet yields through disease-resistant seed, this venture will play a crucial role in reducing our reliance on pesticides, while safeguarding domestic sugar beet farming and the livelihoods of several growers and communities in the UK.”

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