The UK’s attempts to genetically modify a strain of wheat has failed in trials.
The intention was for scientists to create “whiffy wheat,” a type with a special smell to prevent aphids, which are bugs that damage plants by consuming their nutrients and introducing viruses. Scientists were able to modify the wheat so that it emitted the scent, which is similar to peppermint.
The wheat was successful in the laboratory, but failed when it was subjected to pests in the field.
However, researchers are confident it will work eventually, and claim that failure is part of scientific progress.
Anti-GM protesters objected to the wheat in 2012, calling it a “folly” of investing in GM.
The project cost £732,000, and another £444,000 went to protecting the site from people and animals.
The trial was held in 2012-2013 and published in Scientific Reports by its creator, Rothamsted Research.
Some believe the failure can be attributed to the aphids being accustomed to the chemical used to deter them, rendering the genetic modification useless.
“As scientists we are trained to treat our experimental data objectively and dispassionately but I was definitely disappointed,” said Professor Huw Jones, a senior molecular biologist with Rothamsted.
He went on to say, “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.”
Scientists say that these mishaps are unavoidable. “In science we never expect to get confirmation of every hypothesis,” Dr. Toby Bruce, author and senior chemical ecologist at Rothamsted Research, said. “If we knew the answers to every question before we started, there would be no need for science and there would be no innovation.”
Researchers will continue their efforts, and use the information from the failed attempt to genetically modify the wheat in future efforts to reduce the use of insecticides, despite ongoing protests from environmental groups over unforeseen consequences of genetically modified organisms being released into the wild.