Designer wheat fails to repel aphids in initial field test

"I was definitely disappointed," study co-author Huw Jones said of the failed field test.

By Brooks Hays

HERTFORDSHIRE, England, June 25 (UPI) -- The quest to create the world's first pesticide-free designer crop is stalled after the genetically modified wheat failed its first anti-aphid field test.

Typically, designer crops are programmed to work in concert with pesticides. Or more accurately, they're designed to withstand the chemicals used to kill pests. But scientists at England's Rothamsted Research Institute were aiming to create a wheat strain not reliant on pesticides.


But there's a problem, the wheat crop -- five years in the making -- doesn't repel aphids.

It all seemed to going as planned in the lab. The designer crop successfully produced the EBf pheromone, the chemical signal necessary to repel the aphids. In lab experiments, the sap-sucking insects stayed away from the designer wheat.

The real world was a different story, 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 researchers acknowledge in a new paper on the test, published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"As scientists we are trained to treat our experimental data objectively and dispassionately, but I was definitely disappointed," study co-author Huw Jones said in a statement.


The work of Jones and his colleagues has been a source of controversy and target of derision by activists opposed to GMOs in the United Kingdom.

"We had hoped that this technique would offer a way to reduce the use of insecticides in pest control in arable farming," added Jones. "As so often happens, this experiment shows that the real world environment is much more complicated than the laboratory."

The researchers say all hope is not lost. They're treating the test as a valuable learning experience, and will not go back to the drawing board.

The failure doesn't negate the urgent need for a solution to the growing problem of agriculture's over-reliance on insecticides.

"We are in urgent need of new ways to control insect pests on crops, with very limited options available from pesticide sprays and conventional breeding," said Ottoline Leyser, a researcher at the University of Cambridge. "This field trial is an excellent example of the sort of work that is needed."

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