Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - February 23, 2006
* GM on the Farm: A Matter of Choice - European Farmers Speaks Up
* Call to Embrace GM Technology - British Economist Talks Sense
* Prince Charles Shoots Himself in the Foot.....
* ... Prince Charles and His Views on Genetically Modified Food
* ... How I Tried to Stop the Prince Courting Controversy in Public
* China Moves Towards Approval of GM Rice
* Value of Scientists Not Reflected in Their Salaries
* Synthetic Wheats, GM, the EU and the end of organic crops?
* Monsanto Has No Plans for Commercializing the Terminator
* Bt Maize Not Dangerous for Non-Targeted Insects
* Travel Grants for International Plant Breeding Symposium
* Switchgrass to Gas?
* Increasing Plant Enzyme Efficiency May Hold Key to Global Warming
GM on the Farm - A Matter of Choice
- Parliament Magazine, v.63, Issue 218, p 63; Feb. 20 2006 http://www.parliamentmag.com/content/218/contents218.pdf (Via Vivian Moses)
'European farmers need the freedom to choose if they want to grow GM crops or not, insists third generation farmer David Hill'
The business of farming today is challenging. Farmers across Europe are increasingly finding it difficult to make a decent living faced with a fall in global commodity prices, reductions in support measures, higher environmental and production standards and at the same time a rise in competition from outside Europe.
As farmers we can rise to a challenge, we always have. However to be able to do this, we cannot be denied access to the very tools and techniques that are helping our counterparts from outside Europe to become more competitive. We need access to new technologies like GM crops to take us forward and it frustrates me as a farmer that I am currently excluded from using this tool.
I took part in the UK farm scale evaluations - the biggest study of the environmental impact of GM crops conducted anywhere in the world - from 1998 to 2003. During this time I had the opportunity to grow Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide tolerant sugar beet, one of the four herbicide-tolerant crops on trial. I saw striking results. The sugar beet required much less in terms of agrochemicals; three litres per hectare of material compared to 19 litres per hectare on the conventional area, the technology helped to reduce our unit cost of production significantly enabling us to produce much more per hectare.
Regarding coexistence, this was not a problem, on my farm we use organic and conventional techniques and I don't see any difficulty in combining the three operations. It means that we just had to discuss with our neighbours how we were going to place the crops and it certainly didn't bother them and many of them grow organic.
A few months ago I went to Zaragossa in Spain where I met other European farmers to look at the GM maize being grown there. Farmers from France, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic and Portugal grew GM maize last year and they spoke about their experiences. They told me the GM maize was bring-ing in more euros per hectare and proved that there were absolutely no problems with their downstream buyers or with non-GM growers in the vicinity. The 20 or so farmers there from 12 European countries all went home with quite a determination to bring this case forward and make people aware of the benefits and the realities of biotechnology, it is quite simply a new tool for farmers and we don't really see what all the fuss is about.
I am glad the WTO has said that some European countries banned GM products illegally. Maybe now the politicians in these countries will be forced to think more about their own farmers instead of their own re-election. Take for example Austria. How is it pos-sible that the minister dealing with agriculture, Josef Proell, has banned GM from his country? Does he not want his own national farmers to have access to or at least the choice to use competitive new technologies? What's worse, politicians like this are now trying to limit farmers in other Europe countries from growing GM crops.
Thankfully, the European commission has taken a more sensible approach to the coexistence issue than people like the Austrian minister. The commission has written guidelines and they promote exchange of information on the best way to run coexistence. They are very clear about the right for farmers to choose to grow GM or not. My neighbour may not want to grow GM and I may want to, and we should both have that right, and respect each other for that choice. Currently I do not have that choice.
I think there is a big future with GM crops, but if we don't get a move on Europe risks denying European farmers access to the biggest environmental advance that we have seen in the last 20-30 years and at a time when we really need it. And if Europe does want to become an agricultural backwater, then it is certainly going about it in the right way.
"I think there is a big future with GM crops, but if we don't get a move on Europe risks denying European farmers access to the biggest environmental advance that we have seen in the last 20-30 years and at a time when we really need it."
David Hill is a British farmer and the third generation of his family to farm 800 hect-ares in Norfolk in the East of England.
Call to Embrace GM Technology
- Joe Watson, Aberdeen Press and Journal (UK) February 17, 2006
Controversial farming economist Sean Rickard has launched an attack on organic farming, saying it is not the way forward.
He used the Scottish Enterprise Borders' farming conference in Kelso yesterday to hit out at the backward thinking of the organic "rope sandal brigade" who were still ignoring the huge potential and real benefits that GM crops could give farm businesses. He also renewed long-standing calls for farmers to become more business-like and to finally accept that farm subsidies are in the end game.
Many, including the Soil Association, have pointed to organic farming as being the future of British agriculture.
But Mr Rickard disagreed, saying it would be no more than a small niche. Rather than move the industry forward at a time when it needed to undertake massive change and become more efficient, organic agriculture would turn the clock back, he contended. He also disputed claims that smaller farms were better for the environment. All academic studies pointed to the opposite in that larger operations carried out more conservation work and were better managed.
Mr Rickard said a shift to organic methods would cut production. He added: "They are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think they can force people to pay higher prices for food at a time when global trade barriers are coming down. They think if they can create a big enough fuss about this they can prevent agricultural change, but this is just hot air and a waste of time.
"We spend £1billion on organic produce. All this stuff that we've heard about this being the future and taking a much larger share of the food sector is just so much twaddle. We sell more cat food than organic. The cat food is probably better for you as there's no evidence of any type to say organic is any better for you."
Mr Rickard said the future for farming lay in GM technology and in farmers capturing a greater share of the UK's £111billion food industry. He was confident they could do this if they generated greater value from agricultural produce by playing a much greater role in food processing.
That meant developing far stronger farmer-controlled businesses, in which farmers invested capital to buy market share and in where these businesses worked in partnership with all those at the end of the retail chain to deliver the high products they needed.
He added: "If you want a secure future you have to access the wider food industry beyond the farmgate. The value in food is being created downstream from the farmgate and that is where you need to be. "Eventually restaurants and others will be buying much more food than supermarkets sell. There are enormous opportunities beyond the farmgate. "You can capture far more value by moving your productive capacity beyond the farmgate."
But for that dream to be realised Mr Rickard said farmers needed business professionals managing their processing businesses. GM too would deliver benefits as crops could be developed not just for food use but for a variety of other industries. He added: "As GM arrives and gives us the ability to use that new technology to capture new value, it will give us greater profitability, a much more successful and far more viable industry."
Mr Rickard said farmers had to change their thinking and to forge far closer working relationships. They had to adapt the mindset of businessmen and learn new skills so farms could stand on their own feet without the subsidies that have for years fuelled inefficiency and held back the dramatic change that is needed to secure the industry.
"What you have to do is stop thinking that the Government's job is to bail you out, that the world owes you a living and that the world treats you harshly. "When someone invests their life savings in a business outside farming and it goes bust, no one comes to help them. They just pick up the pieces and start again."
Mr Rickard was confident that British farming would survive, albeit that the industry would be in fewer hands and that it had to start delivering what the market wanted.
Writings Put Charles in the Spotlight: Prince's Political Musings Draw Admiration and Ire
- Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2006. Full story at
Is Prince Charles sticking his nose too deeply into politics? A former aide's confidential memo, made public Tuesday, has London's political world debating whether Charles has strayed too far from the monarchy's traditional neutrality in matters of governing.
Charles, heir to the British throne, regards himself as a "dissident working against the prevailing political consensus" and refused to attend a 1999 state banquet in London with Chinese President Jiang Zemin as a "deliberate snub" to a government he viewed as oppressive, according to the memo, written by Mark Bolland, the prince's former private secretary.
Charles regularly wrote letters to government ministers and politicians to press his views on issues including his "vigorous campaign" against genetically modified foods, according to Bolland's account. "He was never party political but to argue he was not political was difficult," Bolland wrote, also noting that political leaders privately complained about Charles's behavior.
"He would readily embrace the political aspects of any contentious issue he was interested in and this is an aspect of his role which the prince saw as particularly important," Bolland wrote in the memo, made public as part of a lawsuit filed by Charles against the Mail on Sunday newspaper.
The prince is regarded as a visionary by his admirers for taking on such issues as global warming and genetically engineered food years before they were popular, but he is dismissed as a frivolous eccentric by critics who say his behavior is unbecoming of a king-in-waiting. Friends acknowledge he is in a tough position: If he remains silent, he is wasting his powerful bully pulpit; if he speaks out, he is meddling.
Paul Flynn, a Labor Party member of Parliament from Wales, said Charles was blurring constitutional lines. "He has to choose if he wants to be the head of state, and therefore above politics, or if he wants to be a politician," Flynn said. "And if he wants to be in politics, he must stand for election."
Flynn described Charles's views as "sometimes progressive, sometimes eccentric and sometimes totally barmy." He said that if Charles becomes king, he would have to "stay out of the political fray" as his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who turns 80 in April, has for decades.
Describing his surprise to discover that he had been seated in business class on the British Airways flight to Hong Kong, while other British government officials were in first class, Charles wrote: "Such is the end of Empire, I sighed to myself."
Prince Charles and Genetically Modified Food
Assorted articles and messages sent to AgBioView archived at:
How I Tried to Stop the Prince Courting Controversy in Public
- Mark Bolland, The Times (UK), Feb. 22, 2006. Excerpt...
The following is an edited version of the witness statement to the High Court by Mark Bolland on behalf of Associated Newspapers
THE evidence given by Mark Bolland, the deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales from 1997 to 2002, is the latest twist in the Prince’s battle over breach of confidentiality and copyright with The Mail on Sunday.
9. The Prince has a website which I helped to create during my time with him at his request. On the current version of this website he describes his role as having three arms: 1) his role as the Queen’s representative, 2) his work for charity and 3) promoting and protecting national traditions, virtues and excellence.
He says that this third arm includes him helping to ensure that views held by many people which otherwise might not be heard receive some exposure, which he says he does through letters to and meetings with government ministers and other people of influence, by giving speeches, writing articles and participating in television programmes.
He also says that in making these views heard, he is always careful to avoid issues which are politically contentious.
10. This was very much how the Prince saw his role during my time working with him, with one exception.
Despite our best efforts, he did not always avoid politically contentious issues, if he felt strongly about particular issues or government policies.
In fact he would readily embrace the political aspects of any contentious issue he was interested in and this is an aspect of his role which the Prince saw as particularly important.
A good example of this is his vociferous campaign against genetically modified or GM foods. The Prince took a very conscious decision to launch his opposition to this in the Daily Mail newspaper due to that paper’s stance against the Government’s view point on this issue (and indeed generally).
The Prince used all the means of communication at his disposal, including meetings with ministers and others, speeches and correspondence with leaders in all walks of life and politicians. He was never party-political, but to argue that he was not political was difficult.
11. The Prince’s involvement in politically sensitive issues was not confined to participation in the GM foods debate.
Read on at
China Moves Towards Approval of GM Rice
- Tamara Vantroyen, Feb 21, 2006 http://www.just-food.com
In spite of prevailing official caution, the prospect of reversing a steady decline in total rice production and reducing the use of pesticides which poison hundreds of farmers each year are likely to prove compelling factors as China weighs up the pros and cons of genetically modified rice.
China looks to be a likely candidate for the first country in the world to approve genetically modified rice, despite the fact that the State Agricultural GM Crop Biosafety Committee, a technical body that evaluates GM research, did not approve the idea at its three-day meeting in Beijing late last year. Caution seems to be the order of the day, largely because opposition to GM rice crops is much stronger than for cotton and feed crops like corn.
But in China, non-approved GM rice has already made an appearance. Greenpeace uncovered the cultivation of GM rice in Hubei province in early- 2005. At the time local farmers knew little about the risks of planting the genetically modified crop, which is why a more cautious approach is being taken to the biotechnology's official approval.
But assuming that financial considerations eventually overcome environmental scruples, what effect would GM rice have on the rice industry in China? Given that the Chinese central government is setting aside US$1bn to hasten the commercial release of GM rice, the effect is likely to be significant to say the least. One of the main attractions of modified rice is that it gives higher yields and would therefore help the problem of food shortages China might face if its rice production continues to dwindle. Rÿice prices are up 27% in China this year because of reduced production. Rice output has fallen from 198.5m tons in 1999 to 179m tons in 2004, according to agriculture ministry statistics.
Pollution, irrigation with industrial and domestic sewage, long term use of chemical compounds and the improper disposal of animal waste from farmland have all contributed to China's dwindling rice production. Pollution in particular gives serious cause for concern. China's farming areas are suffering from water, soil and atmospheric emissions, which has been termed "agricultural tri-dimension pollution". Of the total land that has been polluted in China, farmland accounts for about one sixth.
As a result, one potentially beneficial effect GM rice would have on the rice industry in China is that it would help reduce the use of pesticides which are themselves creating more pollution. Those who stand to benefit the most from a higher rice yield and a reduction in pesticide usage are the Chinese farmers themselves. Pesticides in China are cheap but poison around 50,000 farmers a year, around 500 of them fatally, according to a study led by Dr Jikun Huang and published in the US journal Science.
There is also the matter of cost. Agrifood Awareness Australia conducted a case study with Xia Guoyuan, a 40-year-old farmer, when he was selected in 2004 to plant pest-resistant GM rice in a scientific trial. According to Xia, he was able to save almost US$10 on pesticides, which account for about 30% of his total costs, for each mu or 0.065 hectares of rice.
According to Gurdev Singh Khush, a consultant at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), insect-resistant rice followed by disease-resistant rice are the two types of GM rice likely to be the first to make their appearance on the market in China. Insect-resistant or Bt rice is resistant to the corn borer pest, which is a leading destroyer of corn crops in China. Bacterial leaf blight is one of the most devastating rice diseases in China and disease-resistant rice would be immune to it.
Until the production of GM rice is formally approved, the Ministry of Agriculture has asked 12 grain-producing provinces, of which the five largest are Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan, to raise output by sowing a combined 4m hectares of super rice - a strain of rice developed by researcher Yuan Longping who has been honoured with the title "China's Father of Super Rice" - this year. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, super strains can produce up to 13.5 tons per hectare compared with an average 6.5 tons per hectare for conventional seeds. That this is being taken seriously is illustrated by the fact that 20 leading super rice strains will be cultivated over a period of six years from 2005 onwards, and will be sown over 8.52m hectares, representing some 30% of China's total paddy fields.
Value of Scientists Not Reflected in Their Salaries
- William Reville, Irish Times, February 16, 2006 http://www.ireland.com
Under the Microscope: Science is essential to the modern world, which runs on science-based technology. Yet, science occupies a strangely ambivalent position in the popular consciousness.
Also, despite its importance and intrinsically fascinating nature, science is not a very popular career choice with young people. If this situation is to change, scientists will have to significantly improve the status of science in the public sphere.
The function of science is to discover new knowledge about the natural world. This new knowledge has powerful applications in medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, communications, and so on. The public wants science to discover new knowledge but is also somewhat fearful of this knowledge. There is a niggling suspicion that this new knowledge could be dangerous and that, in some cases, scientists "play God". These fears are fuelled by some self-appointed amateur groups that campaign publicly, particularly on environmental issues.
For example, the health implications of eating certain foods, breathing or ingesting industrial emissions, exposure to radiation, the ecological consequences of growing genetically modified crops, are fairly and squarely questions for science to answer. And yet, mainstream scientific findings in these various areas are often publicly contradicted by amateur groups that ignore the vast body of scientific evidence, dredge up the odd contradictory indication and parade it as the whole picture.
The problem is that the amateur groups are winning these arguments in the public mind. For example, they often make confident, passionate pronouncements that a certain practise is extremely dangerous. A scientist answers with an emotionless statement that evidence to date gives no indication the practice is harmful, nor is there any scientific reason to think the practice is dangerous. When asked for a guarantee that the practice is safe, the scientist answers that science can never give guarantees. Game, Hset and match to the other side.
Furthermore, scientists are often reluctant to engage in public debate with these groups because such debates often degenerate into public shouting matches. Of course this reluctance only serves to confirm public opinion that the amateur groups are on the right track.
Scientists have an obligation to promote and defend science, and traditionally they have courageously done so. The theory of evolution would not have been accepted so quickly but for the vigorous public campaigning of Thomas Huxley. Why are we so timid now?
The relative lack of interest in science among young people is worrying. I don't think this trend will be reversed until public perception of careers in science changes. The current perception is that jobs in science are both relatively scarce and modestly paid.
I recently chaired an Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation focus group that published a study entitled A Comparison of Starting Salaries for Science and Engineering Graduates. The study showed that starting salaries for science graduates compare very favourably with starting salaries for graduates in other disciplines. But, a study has yet to be carried out on the comparative salaries of subsequent career paths in science.
I can only speak knowledgably of university career paths, and I will compare science with medicine. The essential basic qualifications for a university scientist are a BSc and PhD, each taking four years to complete. A further period of postdoctoral study, at least three years, is essential if you realistically hope to secure a junior university lectureship. Openings are scarce and highly competitive, but, with luck, you will secure a position at about 30 years of age with a starting annual salary of aboutH EUR 35,000.
The science career ladder rises from junior lecturer through senior lecturer, to professor. The career grade one could reasonably hope to attain is senior lecturer - salary range EUR 60,277 to EUR 85,408. Relatively few reach professor level because there is only one per department, and it certainly takes at least 15 years to get there. Traditionally a professor is head of department, with onerous responsibilities. The current salary range is EUR 91,326 to EUR 117,512 per annum.
Now consider medicine. The BMed degree takes five years, following which there is a reasonably long apprenticeship, but no longer than in science, with pretty much guaranteed employment and good salary, before reaching the top of the career ladder - medical consultant.
A university medical consultant professor in a clinical area - medicine, obstetrics, paediatrics, psychiatry, pathology, surgery, medical microbiology or dentistry - is paid EUR 202,339 per annum. A senior lecturer in these areas is paid EUR 172,400. These salaries are double the salaries paid to scientists, and a clinical medical professor is paid more than the president of UCC, who receives EUR 186,199 per year.
The new-contract hospital medical consultants proposed by Mary Harney will receive an annual salary of EUR 250,000 for working a 40-hour week with public patients. These will be permanent pensionable positions. By comparison, the Minister for Health is paid EUR 199,044 per year and the Taoiseach's salary is EUR 252,419 for, effectively, four- to five- year contract positions.
Of course, top level medical, legal and other professionals should be well paid. But so too should scientists. The absolute level of salaries could be debated and I am conscious that the average annual industrial wage in Ireland is about EUR 30,000. I also know that there are important reasons besides money why students choose medicine. But science should not be so relatively poorly paid compared with medicine, given its importance to the economy.
The CAO points for entry to various science areas at UCC in 2005 varied from 300 to 485, but 580 points were required for medicine. Demand for science would greatly increase if the monetary rewards were greater.
William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC - http://understandingscience.ucc.ie
Synthetic Wheats, GM, the EU and the end of organic crops?
- David James - david.james9.at.orange.ne; Maidstone, Kent , UK
Dear Sir, An article recently appeared in the UK journal New Scientist (14th February 2006) concerning the future production of synthetic wheat in which the production of new hexaploids through colchicine application and chromosome doubling was regarded as a way of avoiding genetic engineering and the GM label (New Scientist February 14th 2006).
I'm afraid as someone who has led UK research teams to produce both polyploid crop plants by this method and to use Agrobacterium mediated gene transfer methods I very much disagree. More importantly it seems so does the EU who have recently defined a GMO as an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.". (article 2(2) of Directive 2001/ 18/EC).
The phenotypic changes brought about by chromosome doubling are often much more severe than any seen in gene transfer plants even to the extent that any member of the public would be able to distinguish them. I don’t think the consumer who for example, having been confronted with a dark green, larger headed lettuce with greatly increased numbers of teeth on the leaf margins being told 'its alright its not GM -its just had its chromosomes doubled by chemical application' would accept that. The only way they might is if they were also given some other salient facts such as 'a third of Italy’s current pasta is made from the durum wheat variety 'Creso' that came directly from a mutation breeding programme in the 1960's'.
This taken together with the recent EU definition means that the whole of Europe has been consuming GMO wheat for decades. When you realise this extends to literally thousands of other crop plant varieties consumed by EU members (See e.g. http://www-infocris.iaea.org/MVD/ ) you realise what a complete and utter farce the GM crops issue really is. It should not go amiss either that by their own rules the Soil Association are presumably no longer able to claim very much of what they produce is organic.
In one foul swoop the EU has made organic crop plants (and many ornamental plants) redundant whilst announcing that virtually everything we eat is GM.
Monsanto Says It Has No Plans for Commercialisation of Terminator Technology
- Monsanto Co. UK February 22, 2006 http://www.monsanto.co.uk/ Via Agnet
In response to media enquiries (following unsubstantiated allegations that sterile seed technology could be commercialised), Monsanto in the UK responded: "Research on this technology remains incomplete, as it was in 1999 and any development still does not involve us; likewise, its potential future commercialisation is not part of our plans either."
Page 29 of our 2005 Pledge Report includes confir mation that we stand by our 1999 commitment not to commercialise sterile seed technologies in food crops, and how we "constantly re-evaluate this stance as the technology develops".
THIS IS NOT NEW, AS WE ALSO SAID IN THE 1999 OPEN LETTER...."We are not currently investing resources to develop these technologies, but we do not rule out their future development and use for gene protection or their possible agronomic benefits"
Monsanto UK's Director of Corporate Affairs, Tony Combes commented "We have NOT changed our policy and it is nonsense to suggest farmers in developing countries cannot trust us.
Over 8 million did last year, along with other biotech companies, and that number increases each year as millions of growers in developing countries realise the environmental, economic and personal benefits of this scale-neutral technology on their land.
If you don't plant GM seeds, you don't pay anything towards the technology. It is bunkum and balderdash to suggest otherwise".
Bt Maize Not Dangerous for Non-Targeted Insects
- Basler Zeitung, http://www.baz.ch February 22, 2006
Bt toxins, used in genetically modified (GM) cotton and maize, have no direct effects on non-targeted insects.
This is the finding of research conducted as part of the Swiss National Research Program (SNRP). While the toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt ) killed insects on cotton or maize, non-targeted insects were unharmed.
These results were observed by three SNRP researchers as reported by the NFP program "Survival of plants" on Tuesday.
However, laboratory tests showed that exceptions are also possible under extreme circumstances that do not represent natural conditions. Non-targeted insects such as ladybugs could be affected, if they were fed solely on insects killed by Bt toxins.
International Plant Breeding Symposium
- Mexico City, August 20-25, 2006 http://www.intlplantbreeding.com/index.shtm
Travel grants to support scientists from some developing countries are available. Nominees from Argentina, China, Brazil, India, and Mexico cannot be considered for sponsorship.
Anyone wishing to be considered for sponsorship must submit an application to their CIMMYT Regional Office. To view a map of CIMMYT regional officeshttp://www.cimmyt.org/english/wps/contact/regional_locs.htm
Self-nominations for sponsorship will not be accepted. Presentation of a poster is a condition of sponsorship.
Please contact Laura Rodriguez l.rodriguez.at.cgiar.org for info on how you can apply and email addresses of your CIMMYT local contacts and for guidelines for applying for a grant.
Switchgrass to Gas?
- Neil Savage, MIT Technology Review, Feb. 22, 2006. Full story at http://www.technologyreview.com/BizTech/wtr_16408,295,p1.html
'A biotech startup says its genetic engineering method could turn plants into cheap ethanol producers within five years.'
When President Bush spoke during his State of the Union address about turning something called "switchgrass" into a future source of ethanol, thus reducing the United States' dependence on oil, it certainly caught R. Michael Raab's attention.
Raab is president and founder of Agrivida, a Cambridge, MA-based biotech startup that wants to add genes to plants to make it cheaper and easier to process them into ethanol. He hopes the technology his company is developing will make ethanol derived from plants, including switchgrass, a viable alternative to gasoline.
For now, the company is focusing its efforts on corn, already a source of ethanol. But standard ethanol production uses just the kernels. Ethanol manufacturers process the kernels using enzymes that break down the starch into simple sugars. The sugars are then fed into a fermentation tank, where yeast digests them and produces ethanol. But in this process the corn stalks and leaves -- about half of the plant mass -- are thrown away.
Using the whole plant would produce much more ethanol -- but the sugars in the stalks and leaves are in the form of cellulose, which is a much more complex chain of sugar molecules. To break down cellulose into simple sugars for the yeast requires a preconditioning process that includes heat, high pressure, and acids. Today, that process is too expensive to be worthwhile -- as it would also be for switchgrass, a woody grass native to North America that can grow to nine feet tall (and which now no one uses for ethanol).
Agrivida proposes to add genes to the corn plants that will produce enzymes for breaking down the cellulose. This makes it much easier to process the cellulose into sugar, reducing production costs to a point where it's feasible to use the whole plant, Raab says. He predicts the process will be about 50 percent cheaper than current processes once it matures. And it could be adapted to switchgrass, he says.
Scientists estimate that ethanol could replace about 30 percent of the demand for gasoline without affecting food production. Right now, ethanol, mixed with gasoline, accounts for only about 2 percent of fuel in U.S. cars. Switchgrass can be grown on marginal land that couldn't support food farming. And experiments have shown that an acre of land can produce from 6 to 15 tons of switchgrass, yielding about 100 gallons of ethanol per ton.
Edenspace Systems of Virginia is also trying to genetically engineer corn and switchgrass to be better sources of ethanol. "It's clearly an idea that has been kicking around," says Ken Keegstra, director of the Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory at Michigan State University, who recently became an advisor to Agrivida. "I think whoever gets it implemented in a practical way has a real winner on their hands."
It will take time before anyone is putting switchgrass-derived gas in their car, though. So far, Agrivida has designed enzymes on the computer and grown them in bacteria, but they still have to test how the enzymes act in plants. Raab hopes to begin field trials in late 2007, in order to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start marketing his corn in 2010. Adapting the method to switchgrass would require an additional two or three years of academic research, Raab says.
Increasing Plant Enzyme Efficiency May Hold Key to Global Warming
- Emory University, Jan 27, 2006. Full report at http://www.whsc.emory.edu/press_releases2.cfm?announcement_id_seq=5599
Global warming just may have met its match. In research recently completed at Emory University School of Medicine, scientists have discovered a mutant enzyme that could enable plants to use and convert carbon dioxide more quickly, effectively removing more greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
During photosynthesis, plants, and some bacteria, convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into usable chemical energy. Scientists have long known that this process relies on the enzyme rubulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, also called RuBisCO. While RuBisCO is the most abundant enzyme in the world, it is also one of the least efficient. As Dr. Matsumura says, "All life pretty much depends on the function on this enzyme. It actually has had billions of years to improve, but remains about a thousand times slower than most other enzymes. Plants have to make tons of it just to stay alive."
RuBisCO's inefficiency limits plant growth and stops organisms from using and assimilating all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since the spread of photosynthesis has not kept pace with the amount of gas in the atmosphere, the gas builds up. The resulting gas buildup is one cause of global warming.
For decades, scientists have struggled to engineer a variant of the enzyme that would more quickly convert carbon dioxide. Their attempts primarily focused on mutating specific amino acids within RuBisCO, and then seeing if the change affected carbon dioxide conversion. Because of RuBisCO's structural complexity, the mutations did not have the desired outcome.
For their own study, Dr. Matsumura and his colleagues decided to use a process called "directed evolution" which involved isolating and randomly mutating genes, and then inserting the mutated genes into bacteria (in this case Escherichia coli, or E. coli). They then screened the resulting mutant proteins for the fastest and most efficient enzymes. "We decided to do what nature does, but at a much faster pace." Dr. Matsumura says. "Essentially we're using evolution as a tool to engineer the protein." "These mutations caused a 500 percent increase in RuBisCO expression," Dr. Matsumura says. "We are excited because such large changes could potentially lead to faster plant growth. This results also suggests that the enzyme is evolving in our laboratory in the same way that it did in nature."