Britain’s first field trial of genetically-modified wheat could begin in March next year – if the government gives permission for the crop to be planted.
Rothamsted Research has applied for government approval to begin the trial of a wheat crop which is modified to resist aphid attacks.
Scientists at Rothamsted have used the cultivar Cadenza and developed it with a novel, non-toxic aphid resistance trait.
The chemical, called (E) beta-farnesene (EBF), is naturally occurring and can be found in more than 300 plant varieties, including common mint.
Toby Bruce, a senior research scientist at Rothamsted, said preliminary laboratory tests had shown positive results, but the “acid test” was to develop it under field conditions.
“We have developed wheat plants which naturally release this aphid repellent, strongly repelling the aphids under laboratory conditions,” said Dr Bruce. “Not only that, but the chemical is also attractive to parasitoid wasps, which are key natural enemies of the aphid pests.”
The new genes are similar to versions that appear in peppermint. However, they were not taken directly from another species, but chemically synthesised to function like wheat genes. The GM variety also contains two other synthetic genes.
Developing GM crops, such as wheats that can repel aphids, offered an alternative approach to crop protection, rather than relying on pesticides, said Dr Bruce.
If approved, the trial is scheduled to run from March 2012 to October 2013. Objections can be submitted up to 19 August this year.
It would be only the third GM field trial running in Britain. Scientists are testing different varieties of GM potato at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk and at Leeds University.
Currently, no GM crops are grown commercially in the UK, although GM varieties are grown extensively across the world, including in the US, South America, China and India.