A new joint venture involving French cereals group Limagrain and Australia's Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) will invest $12.5 million in the project run by the Australian research body CSIRO.
CSIRO has been working on new, healthier wheat varieties for several years and in March announced that it had increased the amylose levels in a new variety from about 25 to 70 per cent. Amylose, or resistant starch, takes longer for the body to digest and therefore releases sugars more slowly.
Research suggests that slower sugar release reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease increasing rapidly around the world and alarming public health officials. Resistant starch is also though to be beneficial for the bowel and CSIRO scientists say the new wheat will play a crucial role in reducing bowel cancer occurrence.
However a market launch will depend heavily on consumer acceptance of a genetically modified ingredient. Dr Bruce Lee, director of the Food Futures team that has developed the new wheat, says there are signs of growing acceptance.
"We're seeing signs, especially in the US, that things are beginning to change. GM corn is being more widely accepted in foods. And we think that the health benefit [of the new wheat] will help to drive its acceptance," he told AP-Foodtechnology.com.
The researchers have tested the wheat in rats and are now moving into large animal trials. As well as doing trials with humans, they also need to more research into how the wheat performs in different types of cereal-based foods. The high-amylose wheat could be added as wholegrain into breads, cereals, biscuits and other snacks.
There will, in addition, be time spent on more 'back-crossing', or the process by which the high amylose trait is added to different varieties that are better suited to specific climates and territories.
However Dr Lee is hopeful that all this work will be achieved within five years, by which time consumers could be ready to accept the ingredient.
"In our research on another GM product we found that consumers are willing to accept these [GM] ingredients particularly if they're fed indirectly, ie through a feed for livestock, and generally if they're offering a health benefit too," he said.
A study by ACNielsen on 1400 consumers seems to support this finding. It found that while 54 per cent of people said they were not likely to eat GM foods, when the question was asked in terms of the actual GM foods that are available, their responses changed.
Forty-eight per cent of respondents said they were likely to eat packaged food containing a small amount of a GM ingredient such as GM soy or GM canola, and 48 per cent stated they were likely to eat GM cooking oils.
The group is however also developing a non-GM variety, and says it "already has all the tools to bring this to market". The use of gene technology allowed the researchers to define the genetic changes in wheat required to boost amylose levels, and with this knowledge the team can breed the wheat using conventional methods.
However the GM variety will be quicker to reach and the market and Dr Lee says that its health benefits justify the decision to focus on this one first.
The new wheat will be marketed by Limagrain, through its biotech subsidiary Biogemma, in Europe. The joint venture has yet to decide on how it will be marketed in other regions.
If the strategy goes to plan, the high amylose wheat could be one of the first GM food crops available with a direct benefit for consumers. The researchers say the new wheat could also result in cost savings for food processors as they can avoid having to add extra fibre, a step increasingly taken by food makers to boost the nutritional value of their products.
"The development of high amylose wheat varieties will also be good for farmers," added Terry Enright, chairman of the GRDC.
"New value-added varieties will provide the Australian grains industry with the opportunity to market differentiated high-value niche grains in both domestic and foreign markets."
For further information on how CSIRO researchers used RNAi gene silencing techniques to suppress the expression of two starch-branching enzymes in wheat, see the 27 February issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (www.pnas.org/papbyrecent.shtml)