GM 2.0: A new kind of wheat

Designed to reduce the use of pesticides, it could be the first of a new, eco-friendly generation of genetically modified crops. Steve Connor reports on a scientific revolution in the making

The world's first genetically modified crop that has been deliberately engineered to emit a repellent-smelling substance against insect pests is now growing in a small patch of land in the Hertfordshire countryside. Scientists have created the "whiffy" wheat in an effort to combat aphid attacks that can cause upwards of £120m of damage each year to the UK's most important cereal crop, which has an annual value of £1.2bn – and rising.

The field trial, however, is also one of several "second generation" GM crops that scientists hope will be more acceptable to the British public who resoundingly rejected the first generation of commercial GM crops – such as herbicide-tolerant cereals – which are nevertheless grown extensively outside Europe.

The first commercial GM crop was developed in the early 1990s. It was a tomato that would remain fresh after picking and although consumed in the United States, it was never sold in the UK.

Monsanto, the multinational agrochemicals company based in St Louis, Missouri, then came up with a herbicide-tolerant soybean plant. The crop could grow even if sprayed by a weedkiller, which was conveniently made by the same company.

For many people, GM technology was not seen as a socially useful scientific development but a means for companies to increase their market share and profits. The death knell for GM in Britain probably came at the end of the 1990s when a scientist working at a UK research institute claimed to have shown that GM potatoes were poisonous to laboratory rats – even though the research methodology was widely condemned as flawed.

The green movement jumped on GM as anti-environment, while anti-capitalists claimed it was designed to maximise profits at the expense of the people. Meanwhile the Daily Mail came out against "Frankenfood" as unwarranted meddling with the food chain.

But now scientists believe the time has come to fight back. They believe that time is running out for new ways to feed a growing human population, exacerbated by the growing number of wealthy people of the developing world who want to eat to a protein-rich, meat-based diet. Scientists view GM technology as a way of extending the successful "green revolution" of the late 20th Century into the 21st Century.

This is the background to the GM wheat trial in Hertfordshire.

The GM wheat contains an added, synthetic gene that causes the plant to exude an insect pheromone on its leaves which is naturally produced by "frightened" aphids as a warning signal to other aphids. Although the pheromone released by the GM wheat plants will be undetectable to the human nose, the scientists hope that it will deter species of cereal aphids which spread harmful plant viruses as well as sucking energy from the crop.

However, the aphid's "fear" pheromone – known as farnesene – has the opposite effect on beneficial insects, such as ladybirds and parasitic wasps that feed on aphids, because they are attracted to the smell.

The scientists hope these predators will visit the GM crop early enough in the growing season to prevent aphid infestations.

The small-scale field trial, at the government-funded Rothamsted Research station near Harpenden, is designed to test whether the GM wheat variety is able to repel significant numbers of aphids as well as attract the beneficial insects that feed on them, said Rothamsted's director, Professor Maurice Moloney.

"GM has traditionally been associated with killing something. Either killing the weeds or killing the insects. In this case what we are doing is putting a 'no parking' sign on every leaf of the plant.

"It's a very different strategy from what's been done so far and I think it will open up many avenues that will allow us to use natural mechanisms and allow to respond to concerns from the public about the amount of pesticides that are used."

The field trial has been approved by the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which has to oversee all outdoor GM experiments and field trials. Among the many preconditions was the stipulation that the GM wheat would not be eaten by humans or animals at the end of the experiment.

The committee also stipulated that the movement of pollen and seeds from the crop should be controlled with biological barriers and weed killer. A tall metal fence will protect the site from unauthorised people as well as birds, hedgehogs, rabbits and other large animals. Professor John Pickett, the scientist in charge of the experiment, said that there is still likely to be some opposition to the trial, even though it has been discussed in detail with people and organisations opposed to GM crops.

"We've had meetings with the public and anti-GM lobby groups, and we've found there is common ground because I think there is a lot of common interest in improving the sustainability of agriculture and in using natural processes," Professor Pickett said. "We do feel there is a better view of GM technology from the public at large but we recognise there are some individuals who are strongly against this kind of thing and they may seek to disrupt it by direct action," he said.

The idea behind the experiment dates back to the mid-1980s but it was only in 2006 that Rothamsted scientists demonstrated that it was possible to isolate the gene for the farnesene pheromone and insert into an experimental plant.

"We've done a lot of work in the lab and it works really well. It repels the aphids and attracts in the parasitic wasps brilliantly – better than our wildest dreams," Professor Pickett said.

Many wild flowers have evolved the same pheromone gene as a natural defence against aphids, so the scientists went to the peppermint plant as the source of the gene that they engineered and inserted into the wheat plant. Professor Moloney said that the study of "chemical ecology" is about understanding the substances that are continually being passed between organisms and using them in a way that can control pests in a more natural way that is less harmful to the environment than some pesticides.

"When we breed for plants, we breed for things like yield and disease resistance – and sometimes what's lost in the process is some ancient natural mechanisms the plant uses to protect itself," Professor Moloney said.

"Quite often we find it's the weeds out there that are protected against aphid attack, as opposed to crop plants. So what we've done is go back to these wild plants to see if we can reconstruct mechanisms that they probably would have had earlier in their evolution."

However, many wild plants produce a mixture of volatile substances that allow aphids to distinguish the plant-produced substance from the genuine insect fear pheromone. The difficult trick was to create a GM wheat plant that produces copious quantities of pure pheromone, said Professor John Napier, who led genetics team behind the work.

The idea eventually would be to produce GM wheat varieties that do not need to be sprayed with harmful pesticides. The scientists believe that preventing aphid infestations would benefit the wider environment, including the songbirds that feed on aphids.

The new GM: Latest crop of ideas

Cereals with a "zinc sink"

Scientists hope to produce genetically modified grains such as cereals and rice with higher levels of zinc, which is essential for many vital enzymes. A third of the world's population is estimated to have a zinc-deficient diet.

Fish oil in plants

The genes for long-chain omega 3, an ingredient of fish oil with proven benefits for human health, are being inserted into plants in the hope of producing GM oilseed rape with medicinal properties.

Purple tomatoes

Genetically modified tomatoes have already been created with extra genes for boosting the red pigments found in snapdragon plants. These antioxidants, which are also found in blueberries and blackberries, could help to prevent cancer.

Steve Connor

News
peoplePaper attempts to defend itself
Voices
voicesWe desperately need men to be feminists too
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum