A controversial GM wheat strain developed by scientists in the UK has failed to repel insects in field trials. The project had received more than £2 million in government funding. Anti-GM activists have come out criticizing the GM wheat trial, saying the project has ‘wasted’ taxpayers’ money in a ridiculous bid to ‘outwit nature.’
The GM wheat produces a pheromone to repel insects
Scientists had genetically engineered a variety of wheat under the “whiffy wheat” project such that it produced an odor to repel pests. The project itself cost taxpayers £732,000. But it was far less than £2,238,439 that the British government spent on security measures such as fencing for the field trials. The security measures were taken in response to threats of destructive attacks and vandalism by anti-GM activists.
The GM wheat worked as expected in the lab. But out in the field, it was as vulnerable to pests as conventions wheat. The study was conducted at the Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Herts. Researchers had inserted a gene derived from the peppermint plant into the GM wheat. The gene allowed the genetically engineered crop to release a pheromone called (E)-beta-farnesene (EbetaF).
It has the same odor that pests emit to alert each other when they sniff threats such as ladybirds or parasitic wasps. The scent causes aphids to flee the danger. In lab conditions, the GM wheat produced the pheromone in huge quantities without any impact on growth or appearance of the plant, and successfully repelled pests. Findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Researchers will now work to improve the strain
After failing in field tests, lead researcher John Pickett said the pests may have become resistant to the scent signal and learned to ignore it. Pickett said they may have to alter the timing of the release of the scent signal so that it resembles more closely with that by pests. The GM wheat constantly produced the pheromone, while aphids release it in bursts in response to a threat.
Scientists will now work to improve the strain. They argue that the technology may help solve the problem of food crisis as the world’s population continues to increase. It can increase crop yields and help reduce the quantity of pesticides on crops.