About five years ago, a team of scientists at Rothamsted Research (located in England) “began breeding wheat that could be grown using fewer pesticides.” Their ultimate goal? To engineer “the wheat to give off an aphid alarm pheromone to scare insects away.” In the lab, their experiment worked. In the field? The wheat failed to resist aphids.

But in the failure, there was success. In this piece written for Grist, Nathanael Johnson (@SavorTooth) explains.

The Rothamsted (@Rothamsted) project might have provided a bridge between those who support genetic engineering and those who oppose it.


“This engineered wheat lacks many of the characteristics that bother people about GMOs. It was meant to reduce insecticide use rather than enable plants to survive heavy spraying. And instead of being manufactured by a private biotech corporation, the research was done at a public institution by taxpayer-funded scientists.”


However, the project proved controversial.

But in the failure, perhaps, lies a most important lesson about scientific research, as Johnson notes:


“Some activists say that the money was wasted. But this kind of failure is a crucial part of science. The real world constantly confounds expectations and exposes the assumptions of researchers. This is what makes science so cool: It defies expectations. Negative results are important — in fact, it’s when you don’t see them that you need to be most on your guard for pseudoscience.”


A thoughtful essay; a quick read.


Other work we’ve shared by Johnson includes: Meet moringa, the world’s latest superfood; The Johnny Appleseed of no-till farming; Farmers are growing more vegetables, but we’re not eating them; and The GMO controversy misses the point.



Related Links:

Q&A: Pam Ronald, UC plant geneticist

The GMO controversy misses the point

The quest to make strawberries taste great again