Rothamsted Research testing wheat modified to stop disease

Gia Aradottir, right, with John Pickett, Johnathan Napier and Janet Martin.

Gia Aradottir, right, with John Pickett, Johnathan Napier and Janet Martin.

First published in News St Albans & Harpenden Review: Photograph of the Author by , Senior Reporter

A scientist from Rothamsted Research has spoken to the Review about the genetic modification trials that began at the centre last week.

Gia Aradottir, a researcher from the facility, has given a detailed account of the research that is currently being undertaken and what they are hoping to achieve.

The Harpenden-based research centre is running a field experiment to test wheat that has been genetically modified to repel harmful insects in order to protect itself from disease.

Many plants, including the peppermint plant, release a smell to warn off dangerous aphids, also known as greenfly or blackfly.

Scientists have therefore taken a gene from the peppermint plant and added it to wheat, which is usually odourless, so that it too will release the warning scent.

Dr Aradottir said: "We aim to help plants protect themselves against insects.

"We want to protect the wheat from being infected with disease in the first place.

"A lot of people don’t like insecticide or pesticide so this might be an alternative."

Following the success of the laboratory research, the scientists are now conducting a field trial to give them results from a more natural environment.

Dr Aradottir added: "It worked better than we expected in the lab - it went very well.

"We hope that will translate in the field."

The field trials will allow them to see how outside factors, including wind, weather and other insects, will affect the results.

A series of 16 plots of have been created, each six metres by six metres, and half have been planted with the genetically modified wheat and half with unmodified plants.

The planting took place at the end of March and scientists will monitor the crops until late August.

The trial will then be repeated to create more accurate results.

Many Harpenden residents have raised concerns about the impact the trials may have on the town.

However, Ms Aradottir has said that there is no risk to the surrounding area or to people living nearby.

She said: "To get permission to conduct the trials we have gone through a rigorous process.

"People are always going to have concerns but when they start talking to us and they realise that we are using a natural process they understand and see it as an exciting development."

To find about more about the research visit www.rothamsted.ac.uk.

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