Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : Feb 17, 2005
* India special: Embracing GM Crops
* Triumph of the Commons: Open Source to Revolutionize Biotech?
* ...Genetically Modified IP Launched
* World's Hungry are Denied Benefit of Biotech Foods
* Potato Hepatitis Vaccine A Success
* Indian Bt Gene Monoculture, Potential Time Bomb
* Struggling to See The Forest Through the Trees
* Science Beautiful...Best Way to Understand the World
India special: Embracing GM Crops
- James Randerson, NewScientist.com, February 19 2005
"WESTERN protesters holding a cup of Starbucks have no business protesting against GM," says Kiran Sharma. Rich Europeans can afford to reject the technology, he says, "here, we don't have a choice."
Sharma believes passionately that GM crops can go a long way towards tackling hunger in the developing world. But he is no Monsanto stooge. Sharma is a scientist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, southern India. ICRISAT is a network of non-profit research institutes in developing countries, funded by donations from rich nations and international agencies.
GM succeeds where conventional breeding cannot, says Sharma, because it can produce traits, such as disease resistance and drought tolerance, that do not exist in a crop or its wild relatives. Bringing in genes from other species is the only way to improve these crops. "We are trying to give breeders something they don't have," he says.
India embraced GM in March 2002 when the government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave the green light for three varieties of Bt cotton. The crops, owned by a Monsanto subsidiary called the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO), have an added bacterial gene for a toxin that kills a major caterpillar pest called the American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera). So far, Bt cotton is the only GM crop grown commercially in India.
Advocates of Bt cotton say it lets farmers use less pesticide - typically one or two sprays per harvest as opposed to three or four sprays for conventional varieties. They argue this makes it cheaper and more environmentally friendly because the Bt toxin only kills moth and butterfly caterpillars. But no one has studied in detail the effect of the crops on non-target insects and other species.
MAHYCO claims the GM crop typically yields around 30 per cent more than non-GM crops, but critics dispute this. Suman Sahai is organiser of the anti-GM group Gene Campaign in New Delhi. She and colleagues studied 100 farming families growing GM and non-GM cotton in the states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. According to Sahai, yields of the non-Bt variety actually beat the GM crop by around 16 per cent, although the published results do not offer any figures to back up this claim. Certainly that finding doesn't tally with the crop's popularity. "Farmers have bought it left and right," says Govindarajan Padmanaban, a biotechnologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. "Farmers are cleverer than the activists or the companies. They won't buy things if they do not work."
Sahai's main objection is that embracing GM will hand over control of India's food supply to multinational companies that are motivated by profit rather than the best interests of farmers and consumers. "They have nothing in the pipeline that is targeting the poor," she says. "The public is completely excluded from the decision-making process." Why gamble on a potentially dangerous technology with economic risks, she asks, when old-fashioned selective breeding has served so well. Sharma says GM technology allows him to beat diseases that traditional breeding has failed to tackle, such as clump virus and rosette virus, which infect groundnut plants. He is also working on a "golden" groundnut variety which manufactures extra vitamin A for a more nutritious crop. Sharma is now conducting small-scale field trials of GM groundnut, pigeon pea and chickpea engineered at ICRISAT (see "Staple crops go GM").
The chickpea and pigeon pea are both genetically engineered to contain a Bt toxin gene. Sharma began by producing lots of GM varieties differing from one another in the position of the inserted gene in the genome. This can affect how strongly the gene is expressed and how well it is transmitted to the next generation. Then he narrowed down the initial versions to the handful he is field-testing.
The aim of his present field trials is to discover which versions work best outdoors before moving on to large-scale trials in farmers' fields. Both chickpea and pigeon pea are naturally drought resistant and are widely grown for food by subsistence farmers. Ultimately, Sharma intends to distribute the GM seeds to farmers for free.
GM research only takes up around 10 per cent of the research at ICRISAT, but the researchers there feel they have a special contribution to make because they cannot be seen as being in the pocket of industry. "We see ourselves as the acceptable face of GM," says ICRISAT's deputy director-general, Dyno Keatinge.
There is an expectation among researchers that opposition to GM crops will melt away once their home-grown research begins to deliver tangible results. India's farmers are already voting for Bt cotton by buying the seed. GM crops that are "Made in India" can only get more popular. Staple crops go GM
ICRISAT's palatial campus is an oasis of serenity after the noisy streets of Hyderabad. As Kiran Sharma drives me through part of the 1400-hectare site we pass fields of diminutive chickpea and pigeon pea plants next to imposing stands of pearl millet and sorghum. This haven, a half-hour drive from central Hyderabad, is home to 278 wild bird species, as well as monkeys and, slightly alarmingly, cobras. But I am here to see something that could change Indian agriculture. Sharma stops the car next to a low fence. Within the small enclosure are rows of unimpressive-looking, knee-high plants. And in a central inner sanctum of netting designed to keep insects out are the world's first field tests of varieties of pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan). They have been genetically modified with the Bt gene, Sharma announces.
In an enclosure next door is a patch of bare earth, where Sharma tells me he planted another world first only the day before, Bt chickpea (Cicer arietinum). Both plants are grown primarily by poor subsistence farmers, but the conventional varieties are vulnerable to the American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), a caterpillar that can wipe out more than half a farmer's harvest. "These products are badly needed by subsistence farmers," says Sharma.
The non-GM plants in the outer enclosure act as a pollen trap: a way to find out if they pick up the inserted gene from plants in the inner sanctum and pass it to their offspring. They and the earth around them could be contaminated with GM pollen, so I am not allowed near them in case I then contaminate conventional varieties growing nearby.
Sharma's most advanced GM crop is a variety of groundnut (Arachis hypogaea) that is resistant to peanut clump virus, which can reduce harvests by 70 per cent. His team has inserted a gene for part of the virus's protein coat. The plants express the protein but do not fold it correctly, and for reasons Sharma is not yet sure of, this defective protein stops the virus from assembling its coat and escaping to infect other cells.
Groundnut is a particularly good candidate for genetic modification because it is almost entirely self-fertilised, so there is little chance of the foreign genes escaping. What's more, growing GM groundnut should benefit conventional growers in the area because the plant mops up virus particles in the soil. "Our transgenic plants are eliminating the virus," says Sharma.
The Triumph of the Commons: Can Open Source Revolutionise Biotech?
- The Economist, Feb 10, 2005 (Forwarded by Roger Kalla)
The computing industry has been transformed by open-source software, threatening business models while creating lucrative opportunities for some firms. Might the same happen in biotechnology? In a paper published in NATURE on February 10th, a group of researchers describe a way to transfer genes into plants that bypasses the now most commonly used technique, agrobacterium transformation, which is protected by hundreds of patents. The new process may provide an alternative method of modifying certain types of crops in order to, say, improve harvests. But what makes the invention particularly notable is that the authors, affiliated with CAMBIA, a non-profit biotech research group in Australia, have made the procedure free for use under a novel "open-source" licence.
This licence allows people to commercialise products based on the procedure. All that is required is that improvements to the technique itself be shared, to the benefit of all users. This should make it easier for companies and researchers in poor countries to use agricultural gene-transfer technology, which today's patent-licensing approach impedes.
"The idea is to try to craft a system so that we have a different way to do business," says Richard Jefferson, the head of CAMBIA and a co-author of the paper. "This is a demonstration of a way forward for an innovation business model," he says, which could help unleash creativity in poorer countries. This week, the group also unveiled a website, BioForge.net to help biotech researchers to collaborate, much as SourceForge.net is a nexus for open-source software development.
Although open-source approaches have already been used in biotech-related computing (called bioinformatics) and database sharing, CAMBIA's licence represents an actual technique being provided in an open-source form. It is part of a broader push towards open practices in the life sciences. For example, Science Commons, an offshoot of Creative Commons (which provides less restrictive copyright licences to authors), is preparing to develop open licences later this year.
CAMBIA's technique, and its open-source licence, "is a potentially huge deal for people working in minor crops, on humanitarian projects, and even for smaller companies working with the major crops," says Lisa Lorenzen of Iowa State University. Calestous Juma of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government believes the approach is viable because "you have the incentive to invent, but you also have the raw materials--information--with which to invent."
The dominant patent holder in agrobacterium transformation, the most widely-used means of plant gene-transfer, is Monsanto, a big agricultural firm. The firm says that, although it is not very familiar with open-source approaches in the life sciences, the technology seems to complement, not threaten, its business model.
In information technology, some firms, including mighty Microsoft, are severely threatened by open source. Yet other firms, including big ones such as IBM, have evolved business models to embrace open source, which contributes greatly to their revenues. The question is, can open-source biotech also find its way into drug development, where the costs are higher and potential profits greater?
Pedants will note that CAMBIA's approach is not pure open source, since the group relied on grants from foundations to develop the technology rather than on volunteers. Moreover, the licence itself is not completely unique, in that royalty-free, non-exclusive technology agreements that stipulate sharing improvements have existed before. But these are quibbles. The open-source-like approach may not revolutionise the biotech industry, but it is a notable step in a new direction.
Genetically Modified IP Launched
- Kristen Philipkoski, Wired, Feb. 09, 2005 http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,66545,00.html
A paper appearing in this week's edition of Nature is antiseptically entitled: "Gene transfer to plants by diverse species of bacteria." But the information that lies within may herald a revolution in biology.
The paper describes two new technologies: TransBacter, a method for transferring genes to plants, and GUSPlus, a method of visualizing where the genes are and what they do. Behind the research, which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, is a team of scientists who want to provide the technologies as a "kernel," modeled on the Linux movement, as the beginning of perhaps the first practical offering in open-source biology.
Researchers who want to develop technologies based on this kernel can use it as they wish if they agree to a flexible license issued by Biological Innovation for Open Society, or BIOS. The initiative is being spearheaded by Richard Jefferson, also founder of Cambia, an agricultural life science institute in Canberra, Australia.
"My own hope is that seriously disadvantaged people who have a sense of disenfranchisement and neglect can take great heart from our work, and ultimately can find means to dig out of poverty and despair," Jefferson said. "There are millions of creative people who must be crushed to find they have no means to leverage their commitment into advancing their well-being and quality of life."
But how will poor farmers benefit from a technology published in a fancy science journal like Nature? Jefferson calls it "representational technocracy."
In other words, local entrepreneurs, universities and other institutions in impoverished locales need to get on board with BIOS for Jefferson's open-source biology plan to work. He hopes the initiative will help new enterprises, as well as existing nonprofit organizations charged with improving conditions in poor nations, to take advantage of the BIOS program.
"(Institutions in the public sector) need to be much more effective, and the BIOS initiative will (help them) do that," Jefferson said. "Ultimately, as broadband expands, more and more decentralized participation can be envisioned."
For the vision to become reality, BIOS plans to reach out to these entities with its BioForge website, which it launched Wednesday. Scientists can deposit and obtain scientific information on the site.
The open-source biology movement has been bubbling to the surface for years, and enthusiasts are heartened by the first technologies finally becoming available.
"This is important, fundamental agricultural technology moving into the commons," said John Wilbanks, executive director of Science Commons, a group working to make it easier, and legal, to share scientific data. "This is the type of tool that, in increasing numbers, is being patented. To use the operating system metaphor, this is Print-F for plant genomics. Imagine trying to build any piece of software if the print function required a patent license."
The biotech industry is officially not opposed to open-source biology projects, and is interested in studying them further, said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Dry also pointed out that infrastructure, not patent licenses, are often the impediment for implementing new technologies in developing countries.
"The judicial system, the culture, the regulatory regime ... there are many hurdles to overcome before you even get to the question of, 'Is intellectual property an issue here?'" Dry said.
Jefferson is interested in seeing small-time farmers, rather than big companies, benefit from his efforts. And it seems logical that agricultural biotech companies like Dow Chemical and Monsanto, whose business plans are centered on patent protection for genetically modified plants, would not welcome the concept of open-source technology relating to genetically modified crops. Monsanto has brought several lawsuits against farmers for using their technology without a license. (A Monsanto representative referred inquiries for this story to BIOS.)
But Jefferson says he has had "fairly productive" conversations with agri-biotech executives, and he believes there is a way they can actually make money by adopted the BIOS approach, at least for developing some technologies.
"Even large companies, if they embrace a very different business model, can make serious money -- probably more than current earnings -- by decreasing costs of accessing technology, litigation and developing early-stage innovation," Jefferson said.
The companies will likely need to see a clear synergy in order to invest, said Stephen Maurer, an attorney and lecturer with the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, who proposed an open-source approach for developing tropical disease drugs in a paper published in the December issue of the Public Library of Science.
"IBM funds open-source software," Maurer said. "Why? Because IBM sells hardware. You have to tell the same story about why people out in the world would invest in research to develop this kernel."
World's Hungry are Denied Benefit of Biotech Foods
- Alan Mchughen Taiwan News, Feb 6, 2005 http://www.etaiwannews.com/Opinion/2005/02/06/1107660252.htm
Whether gold or grain, humans don't give it away.
Globally, a thousand people die of hunger every hour. More than 800 million of us are chronically malnourished. Yet studies consistently conclude that the world actually produces enough food for everyone; if only it were more evenly distributed we could eradicate hunger.
This is a major plank in the argument against using modern farming methods to increase food production, "There's already enough food, so we don't need modern technology."
All we need do, according to this simple argument, is to redistribute the surplus grain from those who have it to those who don't.
But humans have been starving for eons, even as the world has been producing grain and other food surpluses all along. Clearly, if redistribution were as simple a solution as some suggest, hunger would have been eradicated long ago.
As with global food production and hunger, society has always had poor people living in a world filled with bountiful riches. And the simple solution is to redistribute wealth from those who have to those who haven't.
But complex problems are not solved with sound bites. Hunger persists, and the simplistic solutions simply don't work. Worse, they actually impede the development of realistic solutions to reduce, if not eradicate, hunger and poverty.
Biotechnology and other techniques of modern farming offer a practical means to provide more nutritious food to more people, and do so in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Yet these methods are under attack by some of the very people who claim to represent the hungry and impoverished.
Biotech crops and foods have now been grown by farmers, and eaten by hundreds of millions of consumers, for 10 years. In that time, farmers report a dramatic drop in pesticide usage, increases in yield and higher quality grain with less insect and microbial damage and contamination.
In developing countries, crops under-perform largely due to devastation from weeds, insects and disease. When whatever's left of the crop is finally harvested, as much as a third spoils before humans can eat it.
These are exactly the problems that judicious use of biotechnology can overcome, and a large reason biotech crops have been so enthusiastically embraced in developing countries.
But let's return to the redistribution scenario and question its feasibility. Is it realistic to expect American farmers to deliver that excess, uncompensated, to the hungry overseas? Will our productive farmers continue to grow surpluses if they have to give away the excess grain?
Having the world's poor and hungry fed by American farmers does nothing to stimulate self-respect and self-sufficiency. In banning biotech crops and foods, we deny the hungry a means to overcome both, and continue the cycle of dependency on charity handouts.
American farmers have overwhelmingly adopted biotech crops. Because the grain surpluses come mainly from these biotech crop farmers, redistribution faces another roadblock.
The people spouting the redistribution argument have succeeded in banning biotech grain in many hungry countries. Since biotech grain forms the bulk of the surplus, redistribution to those countries will be prohibited, and the people will continue to be hungry.
One of nature's immutable laws holds that simple solutions to complex problems don't work. Let's reject this redistribution fallacy and focus on real solutions.
Alan McHughen is a biotechnology specialist and geneticist at the University of California at Riverside.
Potato Hepatitis Vaccine A Success
- Mike Toner, Cox News Service, February 15, 2005 http://www.pulsejournal.com/school/content/shared/news/nation/stories/0215_SPUDS.html
ATLANTA — Researchers reported Monday that potatoes genetically modified to carry a vaccine against hepatitis B have been successfully tested in humans.
More than 60 percent of the volunteers tested showed signs of increased immunity roughly equivalent to a standard vaccination after eating a single 4-ounce portion of raw transgenic potatoes. Two helpings of bite-sized potato bits produced even higher immunity levels.
University of Arizona biologist Charles Arntzen said the findings provide "compelling evidence" that plant-derived hepatitis B vaccines could help combat a disease that infects 115 million people worldwide and kills more than 1 million a year.
There are already two conventional vaccines for hepatitis B, but high costs and distribution problems keep them from reaching more than half the people in underdeveloped countries who would benefit from them. In the United States, all newborn children are supposed to be routinely vaccinated for hepatitis B, a serious viral disease of the liver that can cause liver cancer, liver failure and death.
Arntzen's goal is not to find a way to slip vaccines into everyone's french fries. Cooking, in fact, would destroy the active ingredient. Instead, he wants to use the potatoes to "grow" vaccines that could be ground up, freeze-dried, incorporated in capsules and easily dispensed as an oral vaccine.
"We don't want people thinking that vaccines are going to start showing up on the supermarket shelf," Arntzen said. "These plant-based vaccines would be grown in greenhouses under controlled conditions, and the products would be regulated as strictly as any other drug."
The latest results, reported in the current issue ofProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, do, however, underscore some of the dramatic advances in the fledgling field of "bio-pharming" — the use of genetically modified crops as vehicles for the production of drugs, vaccines and industrial chemicals.
Arntzen has previously modified potatoes to produce small batches of vaccine for Norwalk virus, which is frequently blamed for outbreaks of food-borne illness on cruise ships and for travelers' diarrhea. He says that initial human trials of that vaccine have also successfully induced immunity.
Other researchers have tinkered with the genetic makeup of tomatoes, tobacco, corn and other crops to produce promising compounds for the treatment of cystic fibrosis and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, as well as plant-based growth hormones, contraceptives and blood thinners.
Potatoes Pack A Punch Against Hepatitis B
- Roxanne Khamsi, 14 February 2005 http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050214//full/050214-2.html
Plant that contains vaccine shows promise in human trials.
Genetically modified potatoes can deliver the disease protection that normally comes from a vaccine shot, say scientists, which could be good news for developing nations.
The hepatitis B virus attacks the liver and claims the lives of more than half a million people each year. But conventional vaccines require cold storage, which can be hard to guarantee in the remote areas of developing countries with warm climates. And medical workers often have a tough time determining whether a delivery of the relatively costly hepatitis B vaccine has received accidental exposure to heat, rendering it ineffective, says biologist Charles Arntzen of Arizona State University in Tempe, who worked on the research.
So Arntzen and his colleagues have designed an edible vaccine that can be stored without refrigeration inside a humble potato. They took a gene out of the hepatitis B virus and incorporated it in the potato plant, which responded by producing the virus antigen. Once ingested, this antigen protein creates an immune response in the human body that acts as a booster shot against the hepatitis B virus.
The team says that although this approach is unlikely to supersede initial vaccinations, it could replace the repeated booster injections needed to maintain immunity. "This has the potential for a big impact on global health," says immunologist Julian Ma of St George's Hospital Medical School in London.
An edible vaccine would reduce the need for needles and make it simpler to administer on multiple occasions. This gives it an advantage over the full vaccination programme, which involves a series of three injections given over many months.
Participants in the study had already received the primary injections against hepatitis B between 1 and 15 years ago. Arntzen and his colleagues found that 19 of the 33 people in their study produced more antibodies against hepatitis B after eating the potatoes. One subject's protective antibodies increased 56-fold, the team reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.
The fact that the vaccine worked in nearly 60% of the participants came as good news. The researchers explain that even the commercial vaccine, which contains an extra ingredient that attracts immune cells to boost the body's response, does not work in 10% of subjects.
Process for progress
Arntzen's team have already incorporated two other vaccines into potatoes: one against a disease commonly known as travellers' diarrhoea, caused by toxin-producing Escherichia coli bacteria, and another against the Norwalk virus, which causes an intestinal illness.
"We've been delighted," says Arntzen. "We keep encountering cynics who say this won't work and so far we've solved all the problems," he says. Unlike travellers' diarrhoea and the Norwalk virus, the hepatitis B virus did not evolve to survive in the gut, which makes the success of this edible vaccine all the more surprising. For the hepatitis B vaccine to work, it must survive digestion before acting on the immune system.
But raw potatoes do not make an appetising dish and they contain relatively inconsistent vaccine doses. For this reason Arntzen and his colleagues are focusing on making genetically modified tomatoes and converting them into pills. "I expect we will never do another human clinical trial with unprocessed materials," he says.
* Thanavala Y., et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA published online. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0409899102 (2005).
Indian Bt Gene Monoculture, Potential Time Bomb
- K.S. Jayaraman, Jeffrey L. Fox, Hepeng Jia & Claudia Orellana, Nature Biotechnology 23, 158 (Feb 2005). www.nature.com/nbt ; reproduced with permission.
Increasing reliance on a single gene in growing a variety of crops to make them resistant to bollworms could be dangerous, warn experts. Resistance is looming large among Bt crops in India.
The main gene used in the first hybrids of Bt cotton could soon be used in many more crops in India, thus increasing the risk of resistance breakdown. In March, this year, an unprecedented number of hybrids of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)-resistant cotton will be planted in India. A recent model simulating the development of insect resistance to Bt cotton predicts that such monoculture could lead to resistance within a few years. The risk of resistance as a consequence of gene monoculture is higher in India where Bt crops are planted illegally than in other countries producing transgenic crops.
Next month 12 new Bt cotton hybrids will enter the Indian market—all carrying the same cry1Ac gene licensed from US seed giant Monsanto. Four of the six Indian companies that have licensed the gene—including Mahyco in Jalna, Raasi Seeds in Attur, Ankur Seeds Limited in Nagpur and Nuzhiveedu Seeds in Hyderabad—will each release three Bt hybrids. Bt cotton carrying cry1Ac to confer resistance against bollworms (Helicoverpa armigera) was initially exclusively licensed to Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Company—also known as Mahyco—the Indian partner of Monsanto of St. Louis, Missouri, in 2002 (Nat. Biotechnol. 20, 415, 2002).
Keshav Kranthi, a senior scientist at the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur in the Indian province of Maharashtra and colleagues, warned of the risk of pest resistance to Bt varieties currently used in India in a paper published in the Indian Academy of Science publication Current Science 87, 1593?1597 (2004) last December. The authors established a theoretical model to predict resistance development in bollworms due to overuse of the cry1Ac gene. The 'Bt-Adapt model' simulates the bollworm's adaptation to the toxin, depending on the number of generations of the insect exposed to Bt every year and on the number of different Bt crops the insects encounter.
The first estimate is based on two to three generations of insects exposed each year to a single Bt crop. "If the area under Bt cotton gets to 70?80% in a 100?200 kilometer radius, our model estimates resistance development [in] 3?4 years," Kranthi said. "So, it wouldn't be surprising to find Bt-cotton crop failures in some parts of India, starting with [in the province of] Gujarat in a couple of years from now," he adds.
But the Bt-Adapt model can also predict the consequences of exposing bollworms to more than one Bt crop (e.g. cotton and potato). If the number of generations of insects exposed to Bt crops increases to five or six—a likely scenario when another Bt crop is included—the rate of resistance development, according to the model, would be accelerated to half the time it now takes with only Bt cotton.
This scenario is not so unlikely given the increasing reliance on cry1Ac in other crops in India. "Over 42% of the projects in biotechnology research use this Bt gene," says Suman Sahai, convener of Delhi-based Gene Campaign, a nongovernmental organization, and visiting professor of genetics at Hamburg University. "We are going to face a situation when a wide range of crops, from cotton to potato, rice, maize, brinjal [eggplant], tomato, cauliflower, cabbage, even tobacco, carrying the Bt gene will be growing next to each other," warns Sahai.
By contrast, other countries have made limited use of the gene, and have refugia and monitoring strategies. Commercial crops with the cry1Ac gene in the US are limited to cotton and corn, and the gene has been used in research on potatoes. China is using cry1Ac in at least one of the three GM rice crops for which approval has been sought for commercial release (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 642, 2004) and in its commercialized cotton, which was individually developed both by Monsanto and by its own scientists. Meanwhile, Argentina, Columbia and Mexico grow the Monsanto Bt cotton commercially and Uruguay and Brazil carry out field trials. Currently, the potential for illegal planting and associated resistance outbreak is the strongest in Brazil.
Though no resistance breakdown has been observed in fields in India yet, "it is important to remain guarded," warns Kottaram Krishnadas Narayanan, managing director of MetaHelix, in Bangalore, a crop biotechnology company. "Genetic uniformity is really dangerous," adds Says Ebrahimali Siddiq, board member of the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, the Philippines. "Resistance can break down any day."
"This kind of a situation is unique to India," explains Kranthi. Until now, a refugia strategy, not strictly implemented and widely undermined by illegal planting of Bt cotton, was the only strategy to avoid resistance in India (Nat.Biotechnol. 22, 1333?1334 (2004)). "Unlike the US, non-Bt cotton refuges are not required in India," explains Bruce Tabashnik Professor at the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "If all or most of the other crops eaten by Helicoverpa armigera produce cry1Ac and cotton produces cry1Ac, refuge production of susceptibles might not be adequate to stem resistance."
Fears of early resistance development due to gene monoculture is already forcing Monsanto to develop stacked genes thus shifting the focus to other genes. And Syngenta India, in Pune, started to develop cotton with an unrelated type of Bt toxin (vip3). "We need other genes not only to delay resistance but to bring seed price down through competition," concludes Prabhakara Rao managing director of Nuzhiveedu Seeds.
Struggling to See The Forest Through the Trees
- Stephan Herrera Nature Biotechnology 23, 165 - 167 (2005)
With the Kyoto treaty demanding reductions in greenhouse gases and the loss of forests outpacing their renewal by natural means, could it be time to start planting genetically engineered forests? Stephan Herrera investigates.
A new sort of anti-GMO protest broke out last December in Argentina at the tenth anniversary United Nations (UN) conference on climate change. Protestors were not grousing about food this time, but about genetically modified (GM) trees, which, under the Kyoto Protocol set to go into effect this month, are considered a viable, clean mechanism for sequestering carbons in the environment, which contribute to global warming. Citing a story about the reckless planting of transgenic poplars in China--a story widely publicized, but not widely verified--activists vowed to launch a global campaign to ban GM trees, which they feel pose a unique hazard to the environment.
Quoted in a local Vermont newspaper, Anne Petermann, codirector of the Global Justice Ecology Project in Burlington, Vermont, went so far as to suggest that GM trees are antithetical to Kyoto: "Traits being engineered into trees include insect resistance, herbicide resistance, sterility and faster growth, among others. If these traits escape into native forests--which is virtually guaranteed--it will lead to the destruction and contamination of native forests, which will worsen global warming."
But others think the deployment of GM trees couldn't happen a moment too soon. At almost the same time of the UN conference, a group of forest biotech researchers were gathering in a conference room at Duke University. The topics of discussion centered around trees, genetic engineering, business—and politics. The fact that this gathering was off limits to the media offered the clearest evidence yet that, for better or worse, forest biotech is starting to take root.
An arboreal solution
Few things contain or 'sequester' carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane--the usual suspects in greenhouse gas emissions--better than trees. But, because of rising demand for pulp, paper, construction materials, farmlands, and heating and fuel—the latter two being the largest use of trees by far--trees are being cut down almost faster than they are being replaced. Within the next 20 years, experts predict a net loss of trees on the planet. This will wreak havoc in industries, economies and the environment.
Trees store an estimated five billion tons of carbon dioxide around the world. Nonetheless there aren't even close to enough trees on the planet to deal with rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions. And because most trees take decades to reach maturity, which makes replacing harvested trees a long-term proposition, Kyoto signatories--Australia and America are not among them--will soon be forced to implement expensive and politically difficult limitations on industry until they get their arboreal house in order.
Biotech could be the key to helping nations bridge the gap that traditional tree breeding can't. It was not so long ago that biotech was in no position to fill that gap. Governments, companies and researchers did not rush into forests with biotech like they did into farm fields. As a result, the science and technology of genetically manipulating tree genes has lagged far behind crops such as corn, cotton and even the lowly potato. No longer. The science, technology and patents are slowly falling into place. Forest biotech is ready to take root. Indeed, genetically modified trees are ready to be put into the ground and put to the test. The question is, should they be?
Forest biotech took a giant step forward last September when scientists announced that they had deciphered the first tree genome, that of the black cottonwood or poplar. Populus trichocarpa is a model organism whose genetic blueprint will provide insights that its backers—a global consortium led by researchers at Umeå University in Sweden and the US Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute—say will lead to "faster growing trees, trees that produce more biomass for conversion to fuels, while also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere," and trees with unique "phytoremediation traits that can be used to clean up hazardous waste sites."
Not everybody is convinced that forest biotech is needed. Critics like London's Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco and the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC, do not want GM trees to take root—anywhere. At public hearings around the world, critics produce what-if scenarios that, if true, are plenty scary. In South Africa, there is an urban myth that GM trees cause AIDS. In England and France, field tests of GM trees have been destroyed by opponents on more than one occasion.
Critics of genetically engineered forests are particularly worried about a scenario in which nearby 'wild' trees and other organisms of all sorts become unwitting crossbreeds as a result of having the misfortune of coming into contact with the fallen branches and bark, pollen, leaves or sprawling roots from a GM tree bred with foreign genes to yield traits hard to come by in natural woods. Critics also warn that GM trees could theoretically trigger the emergence of invincible pests and fungi.
"If the world needs more trees, why not just reforest with natural breeds? Do we really want to introduce new, unnecessary risk factors into our forests?" asks Margaret Mellon, a biotech and environmental specialist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC. "Where did this idea come from that genetically modifying trees is now, all of a sudden, somehow imperative?"
Boosters say natural forests are already filled with unpredictable cross-breeding, bugs and fungi that find a way to stay one step ahead of our ability to control them. Boosters say that it's not that forest biotech is imperative now, per se. Rather, forest biotech is possible and quite possibly just as inevitable in some countries as GM corn and cotton. Moreover, boosters say that forest biotech is now possible and advantageous like never before—and like all emerging fields of inquiry, this has created palpable curiosity and excitement among the faithful.
"What's driving this new interest in GM trees," says research scientist Julia Charity, of Forest Research in Rotorua, New Zealand, "is advancements in genomics and genetic engineering, and preliminary field trial data that proves that this technology is safe and could benefit the community, industry and the environment in ways that traditional breeds simply cannot."
Some improvements to trees can be made through conventional breeding or selecting from among the natural breeds. But, because of the 20- to 30-year breeding cycle of most trees, it takes a long time to breed and select for specific traits. Also, many of the traits needed by industry—low lignin content or at least altered lignin structure, for example—simply don't exist in nature or in breeding populations.
Biotech can accelerate and rationalize the development process in ways that traditional breeding simply cannot. There is, for example, a growing realization at the world's wood and paper firms—forest products account for somewhere in the neighborhood of 4% of the global domestic product—that innovations in wood quality like fiber length, lignin content, color, texture, density, grain and energy coefficients, won't be achieved without biotech. At least not in this century. Although meager funding for forest biotech suggests otherwise, governments in places like America, Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Sweden, Finland, Malaysia and Indonesia are keen to see GM trees be developed not just as 'carbon sinks' that will accelerate carbon sequestration, but also as a source of alternative fuel, erosion and desertification control, industrial waste absorption, even medicines.
"The major hurdle [for forest biotech] is still technological because our understanding of the biology of most commercial tree species is in its infancy," says Channapatna Prakash, Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Before turning to academia, Prakash spent years researching gene transfer and tissue culture in poplars. "Transferring genes to woody plants is not very easy, and the testing for introduced traits can still take a long time." And a lot of money.
Little wonder that governments and large forest product firms like America's International Paper, Brazil's Aracruz Celulose, Sweden's Stora Enso, and Finland's UPM-Kymmene are providing much of the financial backing for forest biotech research (Table 1). Forest biotech investors are virtually nonexistent. Most of the global funding for forest biotech is being funneled to universities for basic research around the world. There is a growing body of product-based research underway, however, at public-private institutes like Forest Research and startups like SweTree Technologies in Umeå, Sweden, Cellfor of Vancouver, British Columbia, and ArborGen in Summerville, South Carolina.
Most of this product-oriented research is focused on developing trees with reduced or altered lignin content and cellulose composition more suitable for the pulp and paper industries, pest and fungal resistance for the fruit industry, and growth factors for both the furniture and nursery industries and the conservation-environmental efforts (Box 1). There are, alas, many field trials, but as yet no commercial products. Likewise, according to Richard Peet of Foley & Lardner, a biotech-focused law firm in Washington, DC, there is an acceleration in patenting activity, too. But, as yet, the true value of these patents remains to be seen.
"And it doesn't help that the US Patent Office, at least, is much less inclined today to grant the kind of broad patents for forest biotech innovations that we once saw in biotech," Peet says. He adds that there is a patchwork of intricate and overlapping forestry agreements that can leave investors and entrepreneurs alike bemused and impatient. Prospects for the field could be further complicated if regulators decide that forest biotech requires new controls to ensure environmental protection. Although research has yet to prove that GM trees are any more hazardous to the environment or to humans than traditional trees, those in the forest biotech field are cognizant that they can't push too far, too fast for permits to plant GM trees in the wild.
"We can only go where the science tells us we can go," says Mats Johnson, CEO of SweTree Technologies. "Compared with other agricultural crops, where there has been some sort of directed development over thousands of years, in the forest industry, we're just beginning to understand the biology of trees—[forest biotech] will take patience and time."
Something has to give
The amount of timber that can be sustainably harvested from mature forests is only about two cubic meters per hectare per year. Forestry experts believe that the estimated stock of 3.9 billion hectares of global forests cannot supply the average annual demand of 3.4 billion cubic meters for much longer1.
Forest Research's Christian Walter and Trevor Fening of the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, have written extensively on this conundrum. As described in their recently published book, 90% of the trees that are being felled to meet global demand are coming from natural forests2.
As it happens, humans aren't the only threats to forests. New tree-ruining pests and fungi are finding their way into forests faster than trees are developing resistance to them, leaving badly damaged and deforested national forests and state parks around the globe. The Dutch elm beetle has wiped out tens of thousands of hectares of trees in America; the eight-toothed spruce bark beetle is eating its way across continental Europe leaving similar numbers of dead and dying trees behind; and in China, Japan and Korea, the Asian longhorn beetle is being blamed for felling so many trees on the frontier that the Gobe desert is advancing faster than normal. Furthermore, air pollution, and the acid rain that follows, contributes to soil acidification, which slowly kills trees by robbing the soil of vital nutrients like potassium and magnesium.
Traditional breeding has yet to resolve threats to our forests. But based on work discussed at the Duke conference, forest biotech researchers predict that in the coming years, the next series of studies will bear out notions that GM trees can be made to grow to peak height in 5?10 years rather than 20?30 as is the case now. If true, this would be a boon for industry and the environment. Researchers say GM trees will be developed that don't produce blossoms, seeds or pollen—or debilitating allergies for much of the world. Critics argue that tree pollen, in particular, because it can travel great distances and in great volumes, would lead to massive gene transfer to nearby plants resulting in potentially problematic cross-breeding. No flowers or cones, no pollen.
But, Forest Research's Walter, who also happens to be the cofounder of Greenpeace in Germany, acknowledges that it won't be easy to reassure the public that the promised rewards of forest biotech outweigh fear of the unknown. "We will never know what forest biotech can deliver until we start putting trees in the ground," says Dr. Walter. "There are risks, but then there are also risks if we do nothing."
1. harity, J. Is genetic engineering having an impact on forestry? Primary Industry Management 6, 8?10 (2003).
2. Walter, C. & Fenning, T. in Plantation Forest Biotechnology for the 21st Century (eds. Walter, C. & Carson, M.) 423?424 (Research Signpost, Kerala, India, 2004).
3. Hu, W.J. et al. Repression of lignin biosynthesis promotes cellulose accumulation and growth in transgenic trees. Nat. Biotechnol. 17, 808?812 (1999).
4. Eriksson, M.E., Israelsson, M., Olsson, O. & Moritz, T. Increased gibberellin biosynthesis in transgenic trees promotes growth, biomass production and xylem fiber length. Nat. Biotechnol. 18, 784?788
5. Pilate, G. et al. Field and pulping performances of transgenic trees with altered lignification. Nat. Biotechnol. 20, 607?612 (2002).
Science can be Beautiful, Amazing, the Best Way to Try to Understand the World
- Lewis Wolpert, The Independent, February 9, 2005 http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_technology/story.jsp?story=609114
Science needs your help. We need to find a way to bring the general public and scientists closer together so that they can understand each other better, helping to lead to sensible decisions about both science and those applications of it that affect our lives. There have been attempts to do this, but I'm not persuaded that any have been successful, and there has been little research to find out if they actually had useful results.
The issue of mutual trust is central. Science can be beautiful, amazing, the best way of trying to understand the world. But it is difficult. My own claim is that if an idea fits with common sense, then it is almost certainly scientifically false. It is as clear as day, for example, that the Sun goes round the Earth. The world is just not built on a common-sense basis.
Unfortunately, there is no one simple description of the scientific method, other than that of finding reliable evidence to explain events. There is only one correct explanation for any set of observations - and there are many styles of doing science. Scientists themselves can be remarkably ignorant of work outside their special fields, so non-scientists can easily be alienated by science. For most Members of Parliament and senior civil servants, science is an alien culture.
Max Perutz, a molecular biologist, said: "The people in the humanities have been regarded as carriers of civilisation, and the scientists have been regarded as plumbers." I am, myself, a plumber.
If the good fairy offered to fulfil three wishes, what would I ask for?
First, to make clear that reliable science is universal, with neither political nor cultural bias; it is also value-free, and ethical issues only arise when it is applied and affects our lives, from medicine to industry. My second wish would be that everyone should know how to get the best information on the scientific issues that affect their lives, such as genetic engineering. It is essential that these issues are open to informed public debate. It would be disastrous if they were left to doctors, scientists or engineers, or politicians.
My third wish would be for scientists to be more integrated into our cultural life. This may mean them appearing on chat shows, revealing that they are not culture- and character-free. This idea appalled a very senior BBC friend, who regarded it as demeaning to science, equivalent to entering the circus ring hanging on an elephant's tail and wearing a red nose.
The Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, is aware of these problems and is developing a Science and Society agenda. A key aim is to consider regulatory issues that science and its applications, such as GM foods and stem cells, raise before they are put into practice. People's concerns about these new technologies must be acknowledged.
So that is why I would appreciate your help. Let me hear your views. Do you want, for example, to have more information about areas in biology relating to cloning, stem cells, BSE, GM foods or antidepressants? How do you regard areas in physics, such as nuclear energy or nanotechnology? Are there other areas of concern? How best could the information be obtained? What should be the process by which regulations are made, and how should the public and scientists be involved? Do you think that scientists are responsible for the application of their discoveries? Could you give examples of science being explained well to you? And is direct personal contact with scientists the best way forward?
Professor Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London