Keep out. The grain aphid (Sitobion avenae) is one of the species repelled by the genetically modified wheat.
Credit: Rothamsted Research Ltd
Scientists in the United Kingdom are hoping that a direct, impassioned appeal to protesters who have threatened to destroy a field trial of genetically
modified wheat later this month might save their research project. In a letter and video message released earlier today, scientists at Rothamsted
Research in Harpenden respond to a group called Take the Flour Back, which has said that if the scientists
don't remove the plants by 27 May, protesters will do so.
"When you visit us on 27 May we will be available to meet and talk to you," the letter says. "But we must ask you to respect the need to gather
knowledge unimpeded. Please do not come to damage and destroy."
The Rothamsted trial is designed to test whether the wheat, which makes a compound that many plants use as a chemical defense, can better withstand
aphid attacks in the field. The compound, called (E)-ß-farnesene, is present in hundreds of plant species, such as hops and peppermint. It mimics an
aphid alarm pheromone that repels the insects and attracts their predators, including ladybugs and parasitic wasps.
The trial is the first to field-test plants engineered to produce (E)-ß-farnesene. Lab-based tests of the wheat variety showed that it "works
spectacularly well," says chemical ecologist John Pickett of Rothamsted Research who is leading the trial.
In their letter, the researchers argue that, if successful, the wheat variety could cut down on the use of insecticides. "We agree that agriculture
should seek to work 'with nature rather than against it' … and that motivation underlies our work," they write.
They also call on the activists to not stand in the way of scientific discovery. "You have described genetically modified crops as 'not properly
tested'. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained," the letter says. It goes on to
compare the planned destruction to "clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain. We remind you
that such actions do not have a proud tradition."
Take the Flour Back says the open-air trial risks spreading the wheat's engineered genes to "the local environment and the UK wheat industry." "May
27th is the last weekend action can safely be taken before pollination," the group's Web site says. The trial's researchers counter that buffer zones
of barley and non-GM wheat will prevent any pollen from leaving the trial site. (Wheat pollen is heavy, they argue, and not usually spread by wind.)
They will also "ensure that suitable measures are in place to keep pigeons and other large birds out of the trial site" since they could theoretically
spread seeds or pollen.