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December 23, 2004


Insect Resistant Maize in Africa; Biotech Cotton Produces Bumper Crop in India; Experts underline use of transgenic plants; Brazil's Senate votes to allow GMO-growing


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: December 23, 2004

* Insect Resistant Maize in Africa Moves Forward
* Biotech Cotton Produces Bumper Crop in India
* INDIA: CCI procures cotton to help farmers
* Experts underline use of transgenic plants
* China’s developer of super hybrid rice receives World Food Prize
* Brazil's Senate votes to allow GMO-growing
* Cells Don Festive Holiday Colors


Insect Resistant Maize in Africa Moves Forward

- CIMMYT, December 23, 2004

Highlighting the Insect Resistant Maize in Africa (IRMA) project's mid-December annual meetings in Nairobi, Kenya, was news that an application to conduct the first field planting of transgenic Bt maize in Kenya would be submitted and likely approved before year's end.

The application was indeed approved during the week of 13 December by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) Biosafety Committee and was scheduled for consideration by the National Biosafety Committee on 12 January 2005. If all goes well, planting of Bt maize at the project's secure, open quarantine site could go forward in February 2005. Dr. Stephen Mugo of CIMMYT and Dr. Simon Gichuki of KARI presented and defended the application for field evaluation of maize containing the cry1Ab or cry1Ba (Bt) genes.

The broader significance of the above is that it keeps the IRMA project on track with its timetable to get insect resistant maize out to Kenyan farmers. This notable progress was but one of many activities reported and considered at IRMA's annual project meetings held 8-10 December, which included the reporting/planning meeting, the fifth annual stakeholders meeting, and the steering committee meeting.

Reporting/Planning Meeting

Scientists from multiple disciplines gathered together for the reporting/planning meeting to hear from their colleagues about progress toward objectives during the past year and to formulate integrated work plans for the coming year. High points and achievements of 2004 included the official launch of the level-2 biosafety greenhouse by the Hon. Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya; the importation of Bt maize seed for testing in the biosafety greenhouse; the entry of conventional IRMA maize varieties with insect resistance into the Kenyan National Performance Trials (NPTs); completion of surveys to determine available refugia across the nation's five maize growing agro-ecozones; and analysis of urban consumer acceptance surveys on GM crops.

Based on milestones achieved during 2004, ten theme groups put together detailed work plans and proposed budgets for 2005, in accordance with the recently revised project plan. The proposed 2005 activities chart a clear course forward, based on the crucial field testing and analysis of IRMA's Bt maize varieties. Equally significant is the strong possibility that IRMA maize varieties with conventional resistance will be favorably reviewed by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) in national performance trials and pre-released in February 2005 for testing in farmers' fields under their management.

Fifth Annual Stakeholders Meeting

Approximately 75 people, in addition to a sizable media entourage, participated in the IRMA stakeholders meeting. Participants were first taken to the biosafety greenhouse complex at KARI-NARL, where they inspected experiments on the efficacy of Bt maize against Kenyan stem borers. They also saw contained breeding activities aimed at producing Bt varieties that are well adapted to Kenyan conditions and for producing seed for further experimentation.

Following the greenhouse visit, stakeholders traveled to the Nairobi Hilton Hotel, where Dr. Mpoko Bokanga, Executive Director of the Africa Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF), chaired the meeting. Project Manager Stephen Mugo provided an overview of IRMA activities during the past year, including the new management structure for the project. He informed the stakeholders that Phase II of the project will focus on getting products to farmers, with a major effort to addressing regulatory issues. The stakeholders also heard from representatives of current and new IRMA partners: KARI, CIMMYT, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).

Remarks by Dr. Joe DeVries of the Rockefeller Foundation captured the gist of many of the brief addresses. He said that since IRMA's inception, the Foundation has appreciated the project's work on valuable technologies with the potential to change the lives of farmers, and has been impressed by its spirit of transparency and well intentioned communication efforts. He stressed that promising or proven technologies must be shared with poor farmers with the same or even greater urgency as they are with the rich, and that the IRMA project presents a great opportunity for Kenyan scientists to assess novel technologies under their own conditions.

During the question and answer period, IRMA scientists fielded questions from farmers, representatives of civil society, university teachers and students, scientists, and others about biosafety, regulatory and trade issues, and, as in the past, the timetable for products to reach the field. A proceedings of the meeting will be published in 2005 and made available to the public.

Steering Committee Meeting

The IRMA steering committee met in a private session during the final day of meetings to consider the proposed work plans and budgets and discuss strategic issues. Renewal of the project for Phase II and review of the project plan were high on the list of priorities. Among the participants were Dr. Masa Iwanaga, Director General of CIMMYT, Dr. Romano Kiome, Director of KARI, Dr. Andrew Bennett, Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation, Dr. DeVries, and Dr. Bokanga.

For more information: s.mugo@cgiar.org
or visit the IRMA website at:



Biotech Cotton Produces Bumper Crop in India
Enhanced cotton nets yield gains of up to 35 percent

- Council for Biotechnology Information, December 22, 2004

Genetically enhanced varieties of cotton led to yield gains of between 30 and 35 percent and boosted cotton production in India to record levels in 2004, according to India's agriculture minister.

And with more of India's estimated 4 million cotton farmers expected to plant biotech cotton in coming years, production — and rural economic development in the important textile sector — will likely be even higher.1

"The Bt cotton yield was definitely better in quality and quantity, boosting production by 30 to 35 percent in areas it was sown," Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar recently told the Indo-Asian News Service.2

But he also noted that relatively low infestation levels of cotton's principal pest, the bollworm, and favorable monsoon rains helped produce the bumper cotton crop.

While less than 1 percent of the 22.2 million acres of cotton planted in India was sowed with biotech varieties in 2003, this could increase to more than 11 percent in 2005, according to industry estimates.3

Since being approved for planting in 2002, Bt cotton — enhanced with a naturally occurring soil protein, Bacillus thuringiensis — has been quickly adopted by Indian cotton farmers because of the dramatic yield and income gains.

Mahalingappa Shankarikoppa, who grows cotton on a two-acre plot in the southern Indian state of Karnatka, said he earns two to three times what he did when planting conventional seeds.

Likewise, farmer Kishore Malviya, who grows cotton on a six-acre plot in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, says his yields are "way above my normal yield" — biotech cotton is "a dream come true for me."4

While there are an estimated 4 million cotton farmers in India, an estimated 60 million people earn a living from the production, processing and export of cotton and cotton goods.5

Textiles are India's No. 1 export,6 and cotton accounts for about 30 percent of the country's agricultural gross domestic product.7 Because cotton plays such an important role in India's rural economic development, government leaders have been eager to improve production. The 2002 approval of three varieties of Bt cotton for planting was just one action taken to encourage rural economic development and raise living standards.

While India plants more farmland with cotton than any other country — 25 percent of the world's cotton acres are in India — it produces just 12 percent of the world's cotton.8 Average yields, about 500 pounds per acre, are among the lowest in the world.9

And in addition to boosting production of this cash crop, India also hopes to increase the availability of edible cottonseed oil to help feed India's growing population of 1 billion people.10

The agriculture minister's comments about the benefits of biotech cotton are reinforced by several studies. A nationwide survey by ACNielsen ORG-MARG of 1,672 biotech cotton farmers and 1,371 conventional cotton farmers found that:

* Profits increased 78 percent, on average, over farmers who planted traditional varieties.
* Yields increased 29 percent, on average.
* Pesticide use declined by 60 percent, on average.11

In that 2003 survey, 90 percent of the biotech cotton farmers said they intended to plant a biotech variety again in 2004, and 42 percent of the non-biotech farmers said they planned to make the switch the next year.

The popularity of this new technology also reflects the experience of cotton farmers in the seven other countries that have approved biotech cotton for planting: Argentina, Australia, China, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and the United States.12

In China, for example, 58 percent of the cotton acres were planted with biotech varieties in 2003. 13In South Africa, the adoption rate is estimated at about 90 percent in the cotton-growing Makhathini region. In the United States, 76 percent of all cotton acres were planted with biotech varieties in 2004.

Because biotech cotton has proven to be so beneficial for Indian farmers, interest is growing in other biotech crops.

According to a December 2004 study by a leading U.S. food and trade policy analyst, India has at least 20 academic and research institutions involved in plant biotech research covering 16 crops.

Among the research is that on a protein-rich potato being developed that could one day be fed to school children to help combat malnutrition and a vitamin A-rich mustard seed oil that could help prevent blindness.

India is one of the world's greatest beneficiaries of improvements in agricultural technology. The so-called Green Revolution triggered a more than threefold increase in rice and wheat production in the developing countries of Asia, including India, between 1961 and 2000, and saved millions of lives.

Indian leaders and others say that what the Green Revolution did for the 20th century, the coming gene revolution can do for the 21st century: increase production with more environmentally friendly farming techniques to feed a growing, more affluent global population.

"The results [from Bt cotton] certainly encourage us to look at other GM crops," said Pawar.14


INDIA: CCI procures cotton to help farmers

- Indo-Asian News Service, December 23, 2004

NEW DELHI: A government agency has purchased almost three million tonnes of cotton to ensure farmers get adequate returns at a time when domestic and global prices are down due to a high production.

"The Cotton Corporation of India has up to Dec 15 purchased 2.82 million quintals of cotton at the minimum support price," Minister of State for Agriculture Kanti Lal Bhuria said in reply to a question in the Lok Sabha.

The Cotton Corporation of India is the government's nodal agency to procure cotton from farmers at the minimum support price (MSP) fixed annually.

"In view of the fall in price of kapas below the MSP level, the corporation has commenced its operation in all the major cotton growing states (except Maharashtra) namely, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka," the minister said.

In Maharashtra, the State Cooperative Cotton Growers' Marketing Federation has commenced its procurement operations under the state monopoly procurement scheme at guaranteed prices.

As per the first advance estimates received by the agriculture ministry, cotton production during 2004-05 is estimated to be 13.85 million bales of 170 kg each.

The large-scale plantation of genetically modified cotton this year has played a big role in helping India achieve a bumper crop, the agriculture ministry sources said.

Experts underline use of transgenic plants

- Mehr News, December 22, 2004 (Via Agnet)

TEHRAN (MNA) – A letter signed by 144 Iranian biotechnology experts, which was recently submitted to President Khatami, has, according to this story, emphasized the significance of a broader use of genetically modified plants.

The signatories, most of whom are employees at Department of the Environment, have pointed out that, recently, there have been remarkable improvements in biotechnological studies so that the case of transgenic foodstuff has turned into a globally admitted phenomenon.

The cabinet had earlier approved the national biotechnological strategy.

The plan included that the land covered by modified plants in Iran will soon attain 5% of the total world record.


China’s developer of super hybrid rice receives World Food Prize
Yuan Longping wants to share technology with other countries

- Delta Farm Press, Dec 22, 2004, By Forrest Laws

It’s not often that one person can be said to be responsible for feeding 60 million people. But then Yuan Longping has never been an ordinary person.

Yuan, 74, a Chinese agricultural scientist, is widely acknowledged as having discovered the genetic basis of heterosis in rice – a breakthrough that helped lead to the development of hybrid rice.

In the three decades that followed the discovery, hybrid rice has spread so that it is now planted on about half of China’ rice area, resulting in a 20 percent higher yield over previously grown varieties.

That 20 percent increase translates into enough food to feed an additional 60 million people per year in China, according to scientists with the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences where Yuan serves as a research professor and mentor to a number of other agricultural scientists.

For that and other accomplishments, including helping establish the hybrid rice seed production industry in China, Yuan was recently named recipient of the 2004 World Food Price.

Despite his age, Yuan is currently in the middle of a three-phase program aimed at further increasing rice yields in China. His team of scientists at the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Changsha met its first goal of 10.5 metric tons of rice per hectare (9,352 pounds of rice per acre) in 2000.

“We achieved the first plan by the year 2000, and we believe we are making good progress on the second goal of 12 metric tons per hectare (10,688 pounds per acre),” said Yuan, speaking to a group of U.S. rice researchers at a meeting sponsored by RiceTec, Inc. in Houston.

“After this, in the third phase, the target is 13.5 tons per hectare (12,024 pounds per acre) by 2010.”

Photos of Yuan’s new lines, called Super Pioneer Rice, created a stir during the RiceTec meeting, which was attended by university and Extension specialists and crop consultants from across the Rice Belt.

Because of the cascading effect of the heads on the rice, some have compared it to a waterfall in appearance. “This is our vision and our dream,” said Yuan. “It’s the kind of rice we need if we are to feed our population.”

Yuan said demonstration plots of the Hunan Center’s new P885/0293 hybrid produced above 12 metric tons per hectare in four locations in 2003.

The “super hybrids” developed by Yuan and his associates are tall, erect types with lower panicle positions. The lines are characterized by bigger panicles – what one U.S. researcher at the meeting called “grapefruit-sized rice.”

“Having long, erect and narrow leaves means the leaves can intercept solar radiation on both sides,” says Yuan. “Because they’re narrow, they occupy less space. The tip of the panicle is 60 to 70 centimeters (24 to 28 inches) above ground, which results in faster ripening. These plants are also highly resistant to lodging.”

The China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center, which Yuan serves as director-general, was created in the early 1970s to help China become more self-sufficient in rice production.

In developing his “three-line system” of hybrid rice, Professor Yuan and his team soon produced a commercial hybrid rice variety called Nan-you No. 2, which was released in 1974. With yields 20 percent higher than previous varieties, the new rice immediately began to improve food availability in China.

With China’s population now estimated to be in the range of 1.3 billion, increasing food production will continue to be a priority.

“Globally, rice production must increase 60 percent in the next 50 years to keep up with population growth,” says Fred Fuller, RiceTec’s president. “We can’t increase acreage to accomplish that because farmland is actually shrinking worldwide.”

During Yuan’s visit to the Houston, RiceTec announced he had agreed to extend his long-time consulting relationship with the Alvin, Texas-based rice research and marketing company.

In an interview, Yuan said China’s adoption of super hybrid rice is currently limited by differences in the two kinds of rice – Japonica and Indica – that its farmers grow. Japonica is grown mainly in the northern provinces or on about 30 percent of the area and Indica in the southern provinces or 70 percent.

“Heterosis is not as strong in Japonica rice as in Indica,” says Yuan. “Thus the yield advances have only been about 5 percent in Japonica. That’s why the area cannot be expanded further.”

Yuan and his fellow researchers are working to improve heterosis, a phenomenon in which the progeny of two distinctly different parents grow faster, yield more and resist stress better than either parent, in Japonica.

He believes that further development of new rice hybrids and varieties must rely on biotechnology.

His team of researchers, for example, is working on improving the seed set rate in rice hybrids by making use of the wide compatibility gene. Another possibility is the importing of favorable genes from wild rice plants.

One of their more startling avenues of research involves a plant most growers consider a weed in commercial rice fields. The researchers are using genomic DNA from barnyardgrass to create new sources of genetic diversity to increase yield.

Yuan says he believes new breakthroughs with biotechnology will be needed if China’s farmers are to continue progressing toward their goal of feeding the country’s population of 1.3-plus billion.

“Rice is the major food in China, and we currently feed half the population of the world with rice – wheat is second,” he notes. “Rice yields can be increased step by step because rice still has great yield potential.”

How great?

Yuan pauses to consider an answer. “Many scholars believe that the conversion of photo-synthesis in rice can be as high as 5 percent; that is 5 percent of the sunlight can be used by the rice plant,” he says.

“Even if we can reach 50 percent of that or 2.5 percent, rice yields could reach 22 to 23 metric tons per hectare (19,595 to 20,485 pounds of rice per acre).”


Brazil's Senate votes to allow GMO-growing

- Brownfield News, December 23, 2004, by Bob Meyer

Brazil’s Senate has approved a decree to allow the planting of biotech seed and sale of genetically modified crops in the current crop year. Brazil deals with GMOs on an annual basis, permanent legislation is hung up in the Brazilian Congress. Brazil remains the only major ag exporting country in the world without permanent legislation regulating biotechnology.

While the legislation is generally good news for seed companies, there are a few provisions they may not like. One provision says farmers can only plant biotech seeds that have been saved from previous plantings on their own farm. The rule, in effect, prevents companies from collecting tech fees and actually rewards growers who planted black-market GMOs in previous years. Biotech soybeans have been grown illegally in southern Brazil for years.


Cells Don Festive Holiday Colors

- HHMI, December 22, 2004

The latest holiday gifts being offered to the scientific community this season by scientists in the laboratory of Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Roger Y. Tsien come in a dazzling variety of hues — cherry, strawberry, tangerine, tomato, orange, banana and honeydew. The color spectrum would make Pantone proud.

No, Tsien's group is not giving out fruit baskets; the names describe vibrant new varieties of fluorescent protein that the researchers have created to tag cells and observe a range of cellular processes.

By splicing the genes for the fluorescent proteins into specific genes in the cell, researchers can detect when those genes are switched on to produce proteins. They can then use the telltale fluorescent colors to separate the cells visually. The availability of the new colors will enable scientists to track the effects of multiple genetic alterations in a single cell. Tsien and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, published a research article describing the new fluorescent proteins in the December 2004 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology. Lead author on the paper was HHMI predoctoral fellow Nathan C. Shaner in Tsien's laboratory. In separate studies, Tsien's team “borrowed” the immune system's machinery for generating antibody diversity and used it to evolve a new red fluorescent protein. (To read about those studies, please go to http://www.hhmi.org/tsien.html).

In addition to offering fluorescent proteins in a range of distinctive colors, Tsien's group has improved their design, creating proteins that are “monomers” that consist of only single protein units. Fluorescent proteins found in nature with yellow to red colors are invariably four-unit agglomerations that are often toxic or disruptive when fused to proteins that scientists hope to track.

“The analogy is that if you have a detective who is supposed to be tracking suspects, and that detective has to go around in groups of four and track four suspects at once, the suspects are likely to know something is up,” said Tsien.

The latest collection of fluorescent proteins builds on the researchers' earlier success in reengineering a four-unit fluorescent protein isolated from a coral-like creature of the species Discosoma. From that multimeric protein, the researchers engineered a monomeric protein, called mRFP1, which still retained fluorescent properties. However, certain of these properties were still not optimal for a fluorescent marker.

Shaner, Tsien and their colleagues set out to improve mRFP1's fluorescent properties — making strategic mutations in the gene for the protein — to render it more useful as a biological marker. “Basically, we were trying to guess from the crystal structure of the protein or from past knowledge of mutations, where we might make useful mutations,” said Tsien. “In the process of trying to fix these characteristics, we also discovered more colors,” he said. Further adjustments to the genes pushed the fluorescence of some of the proteins to longer wavelengths, filling in gaps in the spectrum of colors, said Tsien.

In the Nature Biotechnology article, the researchers also reported a demonstration of the improved functionality of the new proteins. They fused the protein mCherry (the “m” stands for monomeric) to proteins that were part of the cell's microtubule transport system, and of the cell's structural cytoskeleton. In both cases, mCherry successfully labeled the cellular structures. However, in the case of the microtubule protein, mRFP1 did not label it properly.

The researchers also created a red protein “tdTomato” in which two subunits still stick to each other, but they have been permanently joined head to tail. The resulting monolithic unit has no tendency to aggregate further, yet it fluoresces more brightly and resists fading better than true monomers. But in some cellular applications their larger molecular weight might interfere with cellular processes, said Tsien. And Tsien's team has engineered other fluorescent proteins that may be more or less sensitive to changes in acidity.

Tsien said such a variety of fluorescent proteins will enable scientists to have considerable choices in making such tradeoffs, “and one of the reasons we name the proteins after fruits is to remind people that there is no `best fruit' in the grocery store,” he said.

According to Tsien, the new assortment of fluorescent proteins will give researchers an easier way to track the effects of multiple genetic alterations in the same cells. “They can be applied to single cells, where you want to track different proteins, to different organelles, all the way up to whole animals,” he said.

Future efforts will aim not only at developing monomeric proteins with new colors, said Tsien, but also working on those with more complicated properties, such as the ability to change color under different conditions. His ultimate goal, he said, is to broaden the range of tools that biologists have at their disposal to track genetically altered proteins and cells.