The world’s first genetically modified (GM) wheat trials have failed to produce their own insect repellent. This is a big blow to the publicly-funded experiment that was run by the Rothamsted Research Institute in the U.K.
The researchers are confident that they can use what they have learned in future trials.
The experiment went for five years, as scientists hoped that the GM crop would be able to repel pests without the use of chemical sprays.
Will GM feed the world? And what do the trials at Rothamsted mean for UK biotechnology?
“As scientists, we are trained to treat our experimental data objectively and dispassionately, but I was definitely disappointed,” admitted Huw Jones, who co-authored the study published in Scientific Reports.
“We had hoped that this technique would offer a way to reduce the use of insecticides in pest control in arable farming. As so often happens, this experiment shows that the real world environment is much more complicated than the laboratory,” he added.
Should we embrace GM food?—5-minute debate:
The Institute wrote on its website: “Scientists at Rothamsted Research conducted experiments to discover whether wheat could be genetically modified (GM) to produce an aphid alarm pheromone, and whether it would repel aphids in the lab and field. This would allow farmers to reduce insecticide spraying, benefiting the environment, and making farming more sustainable.”
Where knowledge grows—Rothamsted Research:
The researchers were able to genetically alter the wheat plant so it could produce the EBf pheromone to repel plant lice, and in the lab it proved successful. “However, in the field trials, there was no statistically significant difference in aphid infestation between the GM wheat and the conventional wheat used as a control,” the study said.
Dr Toby Bruce, first author of the study and senior chemical ecologist at Rothamsted Research commented: “In science, we never expect to get confirmation of every hypothesis. Often, it is the negative results and unexpected surprises that end up making big advances—penicillin was discovered by accident, for example.”
According to IFL Science, why the GM plant failed to work is not yet known, although scientists have their suspicions. When attacked, aphids release their warning smell in bursts and spurts, but the GM wheat is modified to produce the pheromone continuously. The researchers suspect that this could result in the aphids becoming accustomed—or habituated—to the odor, meaning it loses its potency, and therefore its effect on the insects.
I’m sure they will never give up. I’m still unsure if it is such a good idea to genetically modify our food. But one thing is for sure, we need to do something.