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Scientists at Rothamstead Research, an agricultural research group in the UK, have published the results of their years-long study on genetic modification of wheat plants, despite setbacks from anti-GMO protesters.

The researchers were attempting to introduce genes into the wheat genome that would repel aphids, one of the insects that plague wheat crops. They borrowed DNA from other plant species, such as peppermint, that naturally produce a chemical signal that mimics pheromones used to signal danger (specifically, aphid pheromones). Their hope was that, by creating wheat that produced these pheromones, the wheat would repel the aphids without the use of chemical insecticides.

In 2012, the researchers were targeted by an anti-GMO group, Take the Flour Back, that threatened to “decontaminate” the research crop. The group led a protest that attempted to destroy the research, until they were stopped by police. The researches were also victims of an unrelated attack of vandalism, and the combined threat forced Rothamstead to spend a lot of extra time and money on security.

Despite these setbacks, the researchers completed their experiment, and the results were published in the most recent issue of the open-access journal Scientific Reports.

Unfortunately, although the initial lab testing showed promise, the field tests failed to show any significant difference in aphid repellance between the trial wheat and a control group.

The scientists are disappointed, but not discouraged. Senior chemical ecologist Toby Bruce says, “This trial has ended up yielding more questions than answers, but that means we have more work to do to understand the insect-plant interaction and to better mimic what happens in nature."

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The researchers already have ideas about why the trial failed, and future directions for their experiments. They believe that the aphids may have become desensitized to the continuous release of alarm pheromones, and that a different exposure rate might improve the results.

“The research project overall provided us with fascinating results,” says project lead John Pickett. “We now know that in order to repel natural aphid populations in the field, we may need to alter the timing of release of the alarm signal from the plant to mimic more closely that by the aphid, which is a burst of release in response to a threat rather than continuous.”

Ultimately, this should be seen not as a failure, but as a step in the right direction. "In science we never expect to get confirmation of every hypothesis,” says Bruce. “Often it is the negative results and unexpected surprises that end up making big advances. If we knew the answers to every question before we started, there would be no need for science and there would be no innovation.”


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