The five-year study will look into the feasibility of engineering cereal crops that could get nitrogen from the air - as peas and beans do - rather than needing chemical fertiliser.
A spokeswoman for John Innes said the focus of the research was on Africa, because of the difficulty for poor farmers of buying fertiliser, but it could have applications for all producers.
She said: “Fossil fuels are used in the production of fertilisers and cause pollution. We hope to help farmers use less or no fertiliser.”
However, she emphasised that the initial stage was a study into whether the technique was possible and if it proved successful full-scale production was still years away.
Previous GM research by other organisations has been disrupted by protestors. But she said John Innes hoped the nature of its goals would not generate similar opposition.
She said: “Our scientists share the sustainability goals of green activists and we hope to receive support from all quarters.”
In January Microsoft owner Gates told the BBC that GM techniques had a place alongside more conventional methods, particularly if they prevented many people dying of starvation.
He said: “Some of the work we [The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] are doing to create new seeds involves GM techniques, but a lot of it does not. What we end up with is a set of products with which African countries can decide what they want to use.”
But campaign group GM Freeze slammed the grant as “… a waste of money that should have been used on more important and productive research …”
Nitrogen fixing wheat and other cereals have been promised by the GM industry for several decades, said the group.
“Real world results are limited however because the changes GM forces plants to make are genetically and ecologically very complex. Also, nitrogen-fixing bacterium used in attempted GM naturally forms a symbiotic relationship with leguminous plants, such as beans and clover, not cereals.”
Nitrogen fixing wheat could lead to farmers adopting shorter rotations based on a very few crops, which will increase agronomic problems later, claimed GM Freeze. Longer rotations mean that weeds, pest and diseases are controlled alongside soil improvements, it added.
Pete Riley, campaign director of GM Freeze, said: “GM technology moves in the wrong direction and assumes we can find ways to force more food out of exhausted soils rather than working with the soil for productivity now and into the future.”
The campaign’s website has published a statement from Mariam Mayet, from the African Centre for Biodiversity in South Africa: “GM nitrogen fixing crops are not the answer to improving the fertility of Africa’s soils. African farmers are the last people to be asked about such projects. This often results in the wrong technologies being developed, which many farmers simply cannot afford.”
Mayet added: “We want our knowledge and skills to be respected and not to have inappropriate solutions imposed on us by distant institutions, charitable bodies or governments.”
To read more about Bill Gates and GM science, click here .