Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: January 6, 2006
* Zambia says ban on gene-altered maize stands
* A MAPK gene from Dead Sea fungus confers stress tolerance to lithium salt and freezing–thawing
* EU plans for GM organic food condemned
* Need will grow GMO crop acreage
* Monsanto gets OK to sell new type of modified corn
* GM maize 'could help fight against iron-deficiency'
* Shanghai to build GM food farm
* Scientists develop mechanism to “switch on” genes
* Philippines rejects GMO mandatory labeling
Zambia says ban on gene-altered maize stands
- Reuters, January 06, 2006
LUSAKA - Zambia said on Thursday a ban on gene-altered maize remained in force despite pressure from millers arguing it delayed shipment of grains to the southern African country.
Zambia faces severe food shortages and the government declared a national food emergency last year to attract more donor support to save people on the brink of starvation. It says 1.7 million people need food handouts because they are far too poor to afford commercial purchases.
"We have never gone back on the ban on GM (genetically modified) maize," Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana told Reuters in Lusaka. He added that all maize being shipped in from South Africa and other destinations had to be tested to verify it was GM-free.
Millers had pressed the government to waive compulsory testing for genetically modified organisms to speed up the importation of commercial and relief food. Zambia says there is sufficient non-GM maize available in South Africa and other markets.
A MAPK gene from Dead Sea fungus confers stress tolerance to lithium salt and freezing–thawing
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 2005; 102: 18992-18997
The Dead Sea is one of the most saline lakes on earth, is about ten times saltier than most oceans, and may well be the breeding place of the most salt-tolerant microorganisms in the world. To adapt to such salt stress, microorganisms synthesize low molecular mass compounds, such as glycerol, to balance the high external osmotic pressure.
Eurotium herbariorum, a common fungal species, was isolated from the lake, and it is this species that figures in a research article from the December 27, 2005 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Yan Jin and colleagues from the University of Haifa, Israel find that “A MAPK gene from Dead Sea fungus confers stress tolerance to lithium salt and freezing–thawing: Prospects for saline agriculture.”
Researchers isolated and sequenced the EhHOG gene from the fungus. The gene, which codes for a protein that allows cells to produce more glycerol, was found to be highly similar to genes from Aspergillus nidulans, Saccharomyces cerevisiae,and Schizosaccharomyces pombe. When expressed in yeasts made susceptible to high salt conditions, the gene allowed the yeasts to survive even under saline stress.
Researchers found a similar gene in peas (Pisum sativum) which could be used to render plants resistant to salt stress. They, moreover, state that “The Dead Sea is potentially an excellent model for studies of evolution under extreme environments and is an important gene pool for future agricultural genetic engineering prospects.”
EU plans for GM organic food condemned
- Daily Telegraph, 05/01/2006
Food campaigners are angry at EU plans to allow organic food to contain genetically modified content.
The European Commission's proposals would permit products accidentally contaminated with up to 0.9 per cent GM organisms to be officially certified as organic.
The Commission said the regulation aimed to take a realistic approach to the risk of GM contamination and ensure organic farmers were not penalised.
But the Soil Association rejected the idea, saying organic food should have a maximum GM content of 0.1 per cent.
Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, said: "Our position is no GM in Soil Association-certified organic, which in practice means the lowest level of GM that can be reliably and consistently detected, which is 0.1 per cent."
Friends of the Earth (FoE) said they believed the EU plans to be legally wrong, adding that current regulations did not allow organic products to contain GM substances "in any quantity".
Helen Holder, a spokeswoman for FoE, said genetic contamination of organic food was "completely unacceptable" to consumers.
"The European Commission should be protecting organic farmers and consumers with laws that prevent organic farming from being contaminated by GM," she said.
The EU regulation is proposed to apply from Jan 1, 2009, and will impose labelling restrictions on organic produce.
Need will grow GMO crop acreage
- Truth About Trade & Technology, by Chris Anderson, Jan 5, 2006
Urbana - One of Bruce Chassy's favorite cartoons shows an overweight woman seated on a couch. She's munching potato chips. A carton of french fries and a soda sit within convenient reach. "I won't eat anything genetically modified," she tells her equally obese male couch counterpart. "It might be unhealthy."
The University of Illinois food scientist told Illinois Crop Protection Technology Conference attendees Wednesday that genetically modified crop acreage will expand worldwide. The expansion will be fueled by increasing need to improve human nutrition as well as boost crop production, he said.
"We have 10 years of experience with biotech crops. We hit the one billionth acre of genetically modified crops harvested last year. No obvious human harm has occurred," said Chassy, who has advised food safety regulators worldwide on the topic.
Chassy said most consumers do not know what a gene is or how genetic modification works. The latter, he noted, is not gene cloning, in which a living organism gets duplicated. Instead, genetic modification takes an individual trait from a gene and transfers it in one step to another living organism.
"There's nothing natural about the food we eat. Plants naturally genetically modify themselves through random mutation. And we have selected plants for thousands of years," said Chassy. "Wheat actually is a cross among three grasses that would never take place naturally. We've been improving crops forever. Genetic modification is just another step."
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have already improved the environment, Chassy noted. During the last decade, GMOs have boosted farm net income globally by $27 billion, he said. In the same time frame, global pesticide use dropped 378 million pounds because some GMOs contain pest-killing genes, Chassy added.
Global population has been estimated to increase 50 percent in the next 30 to 40 years, meaning global food production must double in that time, Chassy said. The scenario will occur as the amount of land for farming will decrease from an acre per person in 1991 to about a third of an acre in 2040, he added.
Despite those facts, controversy still churns regarding GMOs. European leaders, in particular, have created laws restricting GMO crop growth and developed food labels specifying GMO content.
"The biotechnology industry has done a poor job of public relations. Scientists really haven't spoken out," said Chassy. "It boils down to universities and colleges teaching better critical thinking. The debate over GMOs could prove to be the wrong issue at the wrong time because other food safety and nutrition issues loom much larger for society."
Monsanto gets OK to sell new type of modified corn
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, by Rachel Melcer, Jan 4, 2006
Monsanto Co. got the green light Monday to begin selling a new type of genetically modified corn - but said Tuesday that it will keep the brakes on for at least another year.
The Agriculture Department approved commercialization of a corn product, MON88017, that can withstand rootworm pests and applications of glyphosate herbicide, which Monsanto sells as Roundup.
It matches the abilities of Monsanto's YieldGard Rootworm/Roundup Ready corn, which has been on the market for two years and last season was planted on 1 million U.S. acres.
So the product isn't significant to Monsanto as a novel offering for growers. A batch of YieldGard Rootworm/Roundup Ready corn for 2006 use was shipped in November, so the new product won't be needed for at least a year, said spokeswoman Tami Craig Schilling.
Rather, MON88017's importance lies in a new technology used to create it: A transformation vector technique lets scientists insert two different desirable genetic traits into a single plant at once, eliminating a time-consuming cross-breeding step.
The technique could be used to speed time to market for future Monsanto products, Craig Schilling said. It also makes the rootworm-and-glyphosate-resistant corn a base offering that can be enhanced with the addition of other traits.
MON88017 will be field tested this summer to check its agronomic performance. Based on those results, Monsanto will determine how and when to bring it to market, Craig Schilling said.
The company also is seeking regulatory approval for the product in Japan and Canada.
Monsanto was expected to offer further details on its product pipeline, as well as fiscal first-quarter earnings, in a press release and conference call with analysts this morning.
The company's shares gained $2.49 in trading Tuesday, to close at $80.02.
GM maize 'could help fight against iron-deficiency'
- Scidev.net, by Wagdy Sawahel, Jan 4, 2006
Scientists have shown for the first time how genetically modified (GM) maize could be a cost-effective way of tackling iron deficiency in developing countries.
Nearly two billion people, mostly women and children in poor countries, get too little dietary iron. This is the main cause of anaemia, which can stunt children's development and cause chronic fatigue in adults.
Lead researcher Eva Stoger of Aachen University in Germany and colleagues modified the maize by adding genes to its DNA from both soybean and the Aspergillus niger fungus.
The two genes work together to retain iron from the soil and make it available in a form that humans can absorb.
The soybean gene produces a protein that binds to iron the plants take up from the soil — a fact that has been known for a while. Once in the maize kernel, however, the iron can get locked away in such a way that people would not be able to benefit from eating the enriched maize.
The fungal gene therefore comes into play by 'unlocking' the iron and making it available to humans.
Stoger's team, who published their findings in the December 2005 issue of Plant Molecular Biology, showed that cells from the human intestine absorbed three-times more iron from the GM maize than from unmodified maize.
Iron uptake is a complicated process that can be affected by other nutrients. When ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is added to flour, for instance, people eating it take up more iron.
The presence of the fungal gene has a similar effect and Stoger says maize flour containing it would benefit communities that do not have access to other nutrients such as ascorbic acid.
Stoger adds that further studies are needed to assess any potential side-effects of the modification.
Shanghai to build GM food farm
- www.chinaview.cn, Jan. 6, 2006
Shanghai will build its first outdoor experimental farm to test security procedures for growing genetically modified plants and crops, a key official told Shanghai Daily Thursday.
The new farm, to be completed by the end of the year in Qingpu District, will become a major base for tests on locally developed GM plants and food crops, including corn and fruit.
The genes of these agricultural products are being altered to help them grow more quickly and make them more resistant to pests and saline soil, among other refinements.
The farm will be isolated from other crop areas to prevent pollen or seeds from being introduced into the food chain, researchers said. No other crops will be allowed to be grown near the facility.
Researchers said security measures — including the isolated location and offsite monitors — are needed to ensure the city's genetic research takes place in a controlled environment.
"As the city's first outdoor experimental farm for GM food, it will advance local agricultural development in a safe way," said Wu Aizhong, president of the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which oversees the project.
He said the farm will be built in Baihe Town at the northern tip of suburban Qingpu District.
The Shanghai Science and Technology Commission and other government departments have appropriated 4 million yuan (US$500,000) to support the project, he said.
The effort was endorsed earlier by the Ministry of Agriculture and is considered a key project by the city government, Wu said.
The city is already running an indoor experimental farm for GM food, but the outdoor facility will provide more valid information because its crops will be exposed to nature.
The security test period could last from one to several years.
"We need to carefully supervise the entire process of growing GM plants in case it causes any negative side-effects," Wu said.
The chief fear is that GM plants from the facility might affect vegetation outside.
"If a high-yield-related gene accidentally entered weeds or other plants outside, the consequences could be very serious," Wu said.
Chen Zhu, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said at a recent seminar: "We must realize the importance of maintaining security in the development of GM crops in China."
Scientists develop mechanism to “switch on” genes
- Newindpress.com, January 5, 2006
HYDERABAD - Scientists have worked out a mechanism to “switch on” genes introduced in a plant or an animal that has the potential for treatment of diseases like cancer, diabetes and Parkinsons as also for genetic crop modification.
In the normal procedure, a gene, which has been introduced in plants or animals during gene therapy remains switched on. Thus, an insulin gene introduced in diabetics would keep producing insulin all the time, Subba Reddy Palli from the Department of Entomology, College of Agriculture, University of Kentucky told PTI at a sectional symposium at the 93rd science Congress here.
With the gene switch technology, these genes can be made to express when needed, he said. In the technology, besides the desired gene, an element called “response element” and another called “receptor” are also introduced in the plant or animal.
All three as a unit are called a “gene switch”. It has been found that a chemical called “ecdysone agonist”, which is an insecticide, attaches to the receptor of the gene switch (in case of plants) turning on the gene concerned, leading to the production of the compound for which gene is meant for, he said.
The technology has potential for use in gene therapy for diseases such as diabetes and parkinsons, he said adding it can also be used for producing genetically modified crops and other plants, diminishing the risks involved in GM technology (as gene would function only when the chemcial is introduced).
“While biotechnology and GM crops can be used to fight the problem of malnutrition, people are not very receptive of these due to fears of the genes used spreading to other species and the health risks involved,” he said.
The technology is already being used to produce hybrids of corn and has the potential for use in case of BT cotton (in which an insecticide producing gene has been introduced into the cotton plant).
However, there are concerns on account of insects becoming resistant to the BT toxin and a foreign gene consistently present in the cotton plant. The BT toxin gene can be switched by spraying the chemical during the time when insects’ density is more, he said.
For use in animal genes, different chemicals would be needed to switch on the genes, he said.
“When you gather for the next science Congress in 2007, you should be able to discuss the results,” Kalam told the gathering comprising scientists and officials.
The President gave a seven-point research mission for promoting sustainable rural development through science and technology envisaging ushering in second green revolution, improving seed cotton productivity, water treatment facilities in rural areas, hill agriculture, floriculture and horticulture, increasing rice and wheat productivity and establishing solar power plants.
Focusing his address on the theme ‘dynamics of rural development’, Kalam explained how science and technology could be used as a tool to achieve integrated and sustainable rural development and gave a detailed account of the success stories of pura clusters in Periyar (Tamil Nadu), Loni (Maharashtra) and Chitrakoot (Madhya Pradesh).
Stating that pura model had helped generate rural employment using science and technology experiences from local colleges, he asked scientists and policy makers to take up the challenge of replicating these success stories across the country.
There was a need to establish linkage to pura clusters by setting up domain service providers through pura nodal knowledge data centres, he said.
Setting out a mission for the Science Congress, the President said, “Since ministers and secretaries from Central and State governments are present here, a decision can be taken to allot Rs 500 crore to develop 100 pura clusters”.
Philippines rejects GMO mandatory labeling
- Business World Online, January 3, 2006, By Paul C.H. How
The chairman of the Philippino House agriculture and food committee has rejected a proposal to require labeling of genetically modified products, saying this would be unfair to producers.
This was in reaction to a call by several local government units and various sectors for lawmakers to legislate mandatory labeling as a safety measure.
Lanao del Sur Rep. Benasing O. Macarambon, Jr. said manufacturers of genetically engineered products would be put at a disadvantage against organic producers by having to spend for additional labeling costs. GMO producers, he added, would sell at much higher prices than unlabeled organic goods.
The issue of mandatory labeling of GMO products has become the usual practice abroad amid calls for consumer protection.
But Mr. Macarambon allayed fears about the safety of GMO products. He said consumers have become paranoid due to opposition to GMOs.
He added that so far, there had been "no record of damage to humans" as a result of consumption of GMO products. "There have been no clear indications as to adverse effects [GMO5 may bring]."
While no such bill has been filed in the House, Senator Pia 5. Cayetano has filed Senate Bill 2052, which seeks to charge distributors of GMO products without appropriate labels a fine of up to P100,000 and imprisonment of up to six months.
Under the bill, manufacturers must inform the public that genetic engineering was used in product manufacturing, and by which method.
They must also show that a product had undergone safety tests and that it had been authorized for distribution by the Philippino Bureau of Food and Drugs.