The quest for GE wheat was dealt another setback this month, when UK scientists revealed that an aphid-repellant wheat variety didn’t hold up under field conditions. The five-year venture was a lesson in the difference between laboratory results and real-life field outcomes that often plagues agricultural research.
Scientists at Rothamsted Research had genetically engineered wheat plants to produce a pheromone that alerts the plant to the aphids’ presence and helps repel it. The genetic engineering itself was a success, a press release from Rothamsted Research noted.
The plants produced plenty of the pheromone, with no discernible cost to their performance and yield. And in the lab, these alarm-sounding wheat plants were very successful at repelling aphids. However, under field conditions, the scientists did not find any significant difference in aphid control between the GE wheat and normal wheat plants.
The “why” part of the GE wheat failure may yield some helpful insights for future attempts to breed self-protecting wheat, the scientists noted. One potential problem was the growing season — the GE wheat was tested in fields during a wet summer without serious aphid infestations, which makes the likelihood of getting statistically significant results lower.
Another possible explanation is that the aphids became dulled to the plants’ continuous release of the pheromone — not unlike weather-weary Midwesterners who stop heeding constant tornado alarms. The scientists are now considering tweaking the plants so that pheromone would only be released in the presence of aphids or a heavy infestation.