Background information and relevant results

The Swiss National Research Programme 59 (NRP59) “Benefits and risks of the deliberate release of genetically modified plants (GMPs)” includes research concerning the ecological, social, economic, legal and political conditions of GMPs in Switzerland. Part of the Programme is a joint research project (the “wheat consortium”), which consists of 11 research groups that work in large field trials at two sites. An umbrella project was funded to coordinate the technical field work and scientific cooperation within the wheat consortium.

Powdery mildew of wheat (Blumeria graminis f.sp. tritici) is a widespread fungal disease in temperate regions worldwide. If wheat is not sprayed with fungicides powdery mildew can cause yield losses of 10 to 30% and weaken the plants so that they are easily attacked by other pathogens.

Two field sites near Zurich and Lausanne, respectively, were planted with selected genetically modified (GM) spring wheat lines with enhanced resistance to powdery mildew (transgenic wheat with the Pm3 resistance alleles or the glucanase/chitinase genes). Up to 14 GM wheat lines were compared in the field with control lines (near-isogenic sister lines and the non-transformed genotype used for transformation), four conventional wheat varieties, spring barley and triticale. In the complex experimental design different sets of entries were subjected to treatments with fungicide, natural infection and artificial inoculation with a defined race of powdery mildew.
The wheat consortium includes nine projects: At the Zurich field site two projects analyse the effects of the resistance genes Pm3 and chitinase/glucanase as well as agronomic, morphological and physiological traits. The other seven projects deal with biosafety aspects: the impact of GM wheat on mycorrhiza, soil beneficial bacteria, soil fauna, insect food webs, the impact of the environment and competition on the GM wheat plants, and the performance of hybrids of wheat with its related wild grass Aegilops cylindrica. An additional project investigates the possible out-crossing of the chitinase/glucanase wheat lines into the surrounding fields. On the second field site near Lausanne, research questions on agronomic performance were addressed under different pedoclimatic conditions. In addition, resistance of the wheat lines to other fungal pathogens was tested.

Stage of Development

Lab and greenhouse assays were successfully conducted and were a prerequisite for obtaining a permit for the field trials (“step-by-step procedure”). Field experiments with different wheat lines with enhanced powdery mildew resistance were conducted in 2008-2010.

Reasons for delaying, diverting or stopping the research

The application to obtain a permit for a GMO field trial was filed with the regulatory authority, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). Each transformation event released into the environment has to be described in detail. For the hybrids with the wild grass (wheat line x Aegilops cylindrica) a separate dossier was necessary, although the same transformation events were released. After a preparation phase for the dossiers of ten months three applications were submitted to the legal authorities in April 2007. It was difficult and time-consuming to prepare the documents as it was the first application under the new gene technology law in Switzerland. The legal permit for one year was given in September 2007; it included a large number of requirements and conditions for performing the field trial. At the end of each year, a substantial dossier including a progress report for the same and for new transformation events has to be handed in to the FOEN in order to obtain the permit for the following year. For the second field site near Lausanne, a group of six neighbours were granted the status of legal party to file an objection against the release permit. The FOEN had decided that everybody living within a 1000 m perimeter of a field site fulfils the condition to be considered a legal party. In November 2008, the Swiss Federal Administrative Court rejected the objection of the neighbours in every particular. Therefore, the field trial at the second field site could only be started with a delay of one year.

Numerous biosafety measures were imposed by the FOEN to prevent dispersal of GM plants or seeds and to avoid gene flow through pollen dispersal. The requirements include fencing of the experiments and maintaining minimal distances of 100 m to the next farmers’ fields of wheat, rye or triticale and 300 m for seed production fields of the aforementioned cereals. During critical stages shortly after planting and before harvest the experiments have to be covered with bird nets to prevent dissemination of seeds. The harvest of the experimental plots has to be done by hand. After harvest the field is not to be ploughed in order to allow seeds that were lost during harvest to germinate. These volunteer plants must be treated with the herbicide Round up® in the following spring. All persons working on the experimental site have to be trained in advance in safety instruction courses. All plant samples have to be labelled as “genetically modified” and transported in double-walled containers to the labs. Plant material not needed for further research has to be transported to a waste incineration plant. A monitoring program on the field and in a 60 m perimeter until at least two years after the last field season has to ensure that no transgenic volunteers will establish.

To protect the field sites and prevent destruction by anti-biotechnology activists, security experts were consulted to prepare a suitable security concept for the field trials which included a fence and video surveillance. However, even costly security measures cannot guarantee an undisturbed execution of field experiments in Switzerland. In summer 2008, the field site was partly destroyed by vandals. Suspects were questioned by the police, but the legal procedure is still pending. Due to the vandalism a number of scientific projects were delayed and results of the first field season could not be published, including the projects focused on the biosafety of the genetically modified wheat. In addition, the security concept had to be extended (e.g. double fence, security guard with trained dog for 24 h, motion sensors) which increased the costs even more. The biosafety and security measures resulted in an enormous expense in time and effort that could not be provided by a single research group.

Extensive communication efforts by communication officers and scientists were made to inform the general public, both before and during the field trials. Numerous talks and guided tours were arranged for neighbours, media, NGOs, stakeholders, scientists, school classes and the public.

The procedure to obtain a legal permit for a field trial has proven to be extremely demanding in time, complexity and costs. It would have been impossible to complete the regulatory dossier without professional legal support and advice and it would by far exceed the capacity and resources of a single research group.

The regulatory authorities have no experience with field trials under the new gene technology law in Switzerland so far. This led to insecurity and overregulation concerning the biosafety measures, e.g. supplementary requirements were issued by the legal authorities in the course of the field trial as a consequence of biosafety measures voluntarily implemented in the field such as covering the plots with a bird net near maturity.

The substantial biosafety and security measures resulted in an immense expense in time and money that cannot be provided by a research project without substantial external funding.

Foregone Benefits

The cultivation of genetically modified wheat with enhanced fungal resistance could reduce the use of fungicides. This would have direct beneficial impacts on the environment, human health, production costs and profitability of these crops. However, the wheat lines used in the described field experiments are experimental lines and not developed for the market.

The aim of this joint research project was to gain knowledge on fungal resistance and develop methods in biosafety research. The results of the wheat consortium projects will allow a better understanding of the interactions between transgenic wheat plants and their environment. They will make a contribution to the discussion on the deliberate release of GM plants.


to be completed

Cost of Research

The eight wheat consortium research projects and the umbrella project were funded with 3.6 million CHF (2.5 million €) for four years by the Swiss National Science Foundation in the framework of the National Research Programme NRP 59 “Benefits and costs of the deliberate release of genetically modified plants”. The costs for security measures amount to approximately 500’000 CHF (350’000 €) per year and field site. Substantial in-house efforts of the involved research institutes, mainly Agroscope ART and ACW that hosted the field sites, are not included. Thus, the expenses incurred for security are in the same range as the costs for research.


Bieri S, Potrykus I, Futterer J. 2003. Effects of combined expression of antifungal barley seed proteins in transgenic wheat on powdery mildew infection. Molecular Breeding 11: 37–48.
Srichumpa, P., Brunner, S., Keller, B., and Yahiaoui, N. (2005). Allelic series of four powdery mildew resistance genes at the Pm3 locus in hexaploid bread wheat. Plant Physiol. 139: 885-895
Yahiaoui, N., Srichumpa, P., Dudler, R., and Keller, B. (2004). Genome analysis at different ploidy levels allows cloning of the powdery mildew resistance gene Pm3b from hexaploid wheat. Plant J. 37: 528-538
Yahiaoui, N., Brunner, S., and Keller, B. (2006). Rapid generation of new powdery mildew resistance genes after wheat domestication. Plant J. 47: 85-98.

Principal Investigators

Prof. Dr. Beat Keller, Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Gruissem, Dr. Michael Winzeler, Dr. Franz Bigler, Dr. Fabio Mascher