The structure, water use, fertiliser intake, sucrose content, and the very nature of sugar production in sugarcane are likely to undergo major changes with the modern tools of biotechnology and genetic modification. Field trials of GM sugarcane crops for these traits are being undertaken in Brazil and Australia.
Cane Technology Center (CTC), a research organisation based in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil is conducting field trials to test three varieties of genetically modified cane. According to CTC, these GM plants have been modified to exhibit sucrose levels 15% higher than those of ordinary sugarcane - for now, under laboratory conditions. However, if field trials are successful, the company may bring these plants to the market by the end of the decade. Scientists and engineers think that the ethanol yield of sugarcane can be doubled from 6000 litre/ha to more than 12,000 litre/ha within the next 15 years.
Other biotech companies in Brazil also are interested in the potentially large market of GM sugarcanes and they are awaiting approval from the Brazilian authorities to conduct field trials with several sugarcane varieties. University of Queensland, Australia, has applied to the Gene Technology regulator of the Australian government for a limited and controlled release of GM sugarcane.
The Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations Ltd is seeking to introduce mainly four modified traits: shoot architecture (shoot number, stalk size, and height), water use efficiency, nitrogen use efficiency and marker gene expression (antibiotic resistance and reporter genes).
The proposed trial will take place in 15 sites in Queensland between September 2008 and December 2014, and will involve experiments to assess the agronomic properties of the GM sugarcane under field conditions and to analyse sugar production and quality. Promising lines would be selected for propagation for possible future commercial development, subject to further approvals.
Results of the trial will be the basis for future commercial developments and for the possibility of using the transgenic lines in future breeding programmes. The GM sugarcane in this trial will not be consumed by humans nor by livestock. Currently, a comprehensive Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plans are being prepared, which will be released for public comment soon.