Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - May 24, 2006
* ' Frankencotton' Debate
* What the "Techno-Industrial System" Denies Us
* Biopharm Thrilla in Manila
* Ireland - Firm Prevents GM Potato-growing Field Trial
* Field Trials for GM Potatoes
* Bollgard-II Cotton Hybrids Approved In India
* Genetics Moves Corn Belt
* Custom Art From Your DNA
* David Suzuki Believes in Biotech But Wants to Us to Wait for Another Millennium
'Frankencotton' The Debate
- New York Times May 23, 2006 http://www.nytimes.com
To the Editor: Re "Frankencotton, the Shirt":
Although your article on the use of recombinant DNA technology to genetically alter cotton was informative and witty, it truly does a disservice by using the prefix "franken," further perpetuating the myth that somehow these transgenic plants are "Frankenstein" creations.
In fact, products from transgenic plants and animals are widespread in our supermarkets, and so far there have been no detrimental effects on humans. Perhaps it is too early to know the long-term effects of these modifications on our food supply, but so far data reveal no health consequences from transgenesis.
- Michael Hadjiargyrou, Stony Brook, N.Y.; The writer is an associate professor of biomedical engineering, genetics and orthopedics.
What the "Techno-Industrial System" Denies Us
AgBioWorld posting of New Yorker Cartoon on the caveman's dilemma was picked up by many online newsletters. But this one from Ron Bailey at Reason elicited much discussion online:
Biopharm Thrilla in Manila
- Dr. Henry I. Miller, TCS, May 24, 2006 http://www.tcsdaily.com/
At the invitation of the U.S. State Department, I presented a series of lectures and briefings in the Philippines about an exciting advance in agricultural biotechnology: "biopharming" -- the programming of plants to produce pharmaceuticals that can be purified, or that might even be delivered by eating the plant material itself.
The early-stage R&D I saw during my travels was astonishing. University of the Philippines, Manila, Professor Nina Barzaga -- "The Illustrious Nina," as she is known locally -- has introduced into banana plants the genes that express potential vaccine proteins for typhoid fever, rabies and the HIV virus. She and her collaborators intend to process the bananas sufficiently to be able to standardize the dose -- by converting them to dried banana chips, for example -- and then to carry out clinical testing.
As I met with scientists, regulators, agency heads and senior politicians, I found that while much of the science is stunning, over-regulation is a significant obstruction to progress.
The concept of biopharming is not new. Many common medicines, such as codeine, morphine, bulk laxatives and the anti-cancer drugs taxol and vincristine have long been purified from plants. But biopharming's great promise lies in using gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM), techniques to make old plants do radical new things. Gene-splicing has been applied to plants for decades in order to improve their nutritional value and agronomic traits (yield, pest- and drought-resistance and the like). The production of high value-added substances is a logical, straightforward extension.
Biopharming offers tremendous advantages over traditional methods for producing pharmaceuticals. There is great potential for reducing the costs of production: The energy for product synthesis comes from the sun, and the primary raw materials are water and carbon dioxide. And if it becomes necessary to expand production, it is much easier to plant a few additional hectares than to build a new bricks and mortar manufacturing facility. (Think Tamiflu, the anti-influenza drug, which is in short supply.)
Finally, vaccines produced in this way will be designed to be heat-stable, so that no "refrigeration chain" from manufacturer to patient will be required -- a major advance for use in developing countries, especially in the tropics and throughout Africa.
Approximately two dozen companies worldwide are involved in biopharming, and about half have products in clinical trials. The spectrum of products is broad, ranging from the prevention of tooth decay and the common cold to treatments for cancer and cystic fibrosis. Just last month, California-based Ventria Bioscience reported favorable clinical results with two human proteins biopharmed in rice and used to treat pediatric diarrhea.
There are major, interrelated obstacles to moving these projects through to commercialization, however. Excessive, unscientific regulation, the bleating of anti-biotech NGOs, and shortfalls in funding -- all conspire against the projects. Worse still, these negative factors reinforce one another. Over-regulation makes field trials difficult and hugely expensive to carry out, which makes it hard to attract Big Pharma collaborators or funders; and the NGOs endlessly wring their hands about risks and point skeptically (and cynically) to the absence of medical breakthroughs.
Critics of the new technology have made dire predictions of contamination of the food supply, warning of "drugs in your corn flakes." However, the sophistication of modern agriculture enables us to sequester different crop varieties when necessary and to cultivate safely the same species of crops for food and for new pharmaceuticals. Having said that, one must admit that human error is inevitable, so it is reasonable to ask: What is the likelihood of consumers' sustaining injury if a few biopharmed plants find their way into the food supply?
In order for unwanted health effects to be realized, several highly improbable events would have to occur. First, the active drug substance would have to be present in the final food product -- say, corn chips or oil, if the drug were made in corn, for example -- at sufficient levels to exert an adverse effect from either direct toxicity or allergy. But there is generally a huge dilutional effect, as small amounts of biopharmed material are pooled into a much larger harvest; with few exceptions (e.g. peanuts), even an allergic reaction requires the presence of more than a minuscule exposure. Second, the active agent would need to survive milling, other processing, and cooking. Third, it would need to be orally active (usually, proteins are not because they are degraded in the gut).
The probability that all of these events would occur is extremely low.
To be sure, biopharming misused could present valid safety concerns. It would be irresponsible, for example, to produce the anti-wrinkle drug Botox in an edible plant, except under very high conditions of containment, probably in a greenhouse or screenhouse: the active ingredient in the drug is, after, all, the highly lethal botulinum toxin (which is safe when injected under the skin in tiny doses).
One constant around the world is the over-regulation of agricultural biotechnology, especially biopharming. For example, the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture impose highly prescriptive standards that fail to take into account the actual risks of a given situation, but mindlessly dictate one-size-fits-all, draconian requirements. These include large buffer zones between biopharmed and other crops; the requirement to leave land used to grow biopharmed plants fallow for a year following harvest; and the setting aside of planting, storage and harvesting equipment exclusively for biopharmed crops. Moreover, USDA has imposed a zero-tolerance for any biopharmed crop in food -- which is unscientific, unrealistic and unnecessary. (Regulators seem to have forgotten about the long-established tolerance levels in grains for unwanted substances such as insect parts, rodent droppings and harmful fungal toxins.)
Countries such as the Philippines that lack large, sophisticated regulatory apparatuses often follow the lead of the United States or the United Nations, whose regulations are lethal to innovation in poorer countries. If you're running a small-scale but high-quality R&D operation that can't test its biopharmed plants in the field, it's hard to convince potential commercial collaborators that you're for real.
If we can't break this vicious circle by injecting science into public policy, biopharming's development costs will continue to be hugely inflated, only very high-value-added products will become development candidates, and consumers worldwide ultimately will see few biopharmed drugs in the pharmacy. And in the process, the impressive work of people like The Illustrious Nina will be for naught.
Henry I. Miller (email@example.com) is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 1989 to 1993, he was director of the U.S. FDA's Office of Biotechnology. His most recent book, The Frankenfood Myth, was selected by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
Ireland - Firm Prevents GM Potato-growing Field Trial
- Aideen Sheehan, The Irish Independent, May 24, 2006.
Genetically modified (GM) potatoes will not be grown here this year. It has also emerged that field trials may be cancelled altogether because of stringent restrictions on how they can be carried out.
German chemical giant BASF said yesterday that they would not be proceeding with the field trials of blight-resistant potatoes in Co Meath this summer because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had made it too difficult to do so.
The Irish authorities were imposing conditions that were "not common with other EU states", a BASF spokesperson said. One of the conditions imposed was that the potatoes would have to be sown in May which had posed too tight a timeline for this year, given the issues that still needed to be clarified with the EPA, she said.
BASF is in discussions with the EPA at the moment over the conditions attached to approval of their field trials, and following these will decide whether to go ahead with them in 2007, she said.
The trials of blight-resistant potatoes were recently approved to go ahead this summer at a farm in Arodstown, Summerhill, Co Meath and continue until 2010, but stringent conditions including the need for independent monitoring were included.
BASF is now assessing the cost and other implications of the EPA decision, their spokesperson said. The company had been carrying out trials of GM potatoes in Sweden for seven or eight years without problems, she said. GM-Free Ireland welcomed the news, which they said was a victory for opponents of GM technology.
Field Trials for GM Potatoes
- Irish Times, May 23, 2006
Madam, - It is legitimate for people to be concerned about the health and environmental impacts of GM food, and those who believe in the technology need to win the public round. However, what is not legitimate is to try to scare people with misleading and erroneous information, as in the latest diatribe by Dr Elizabeth Cullen (Opinion & Analysis, May 17th).
An exhaustive critique would take too long, so I'll restrict myself to a few of the more glaring points. Dr Cullen states: "The piece of DNA is generally inserted into a virus, which then infects the targeted cell". This is not true. If a biological vector is used (which is not always the case) it is invariably bacterial, not viral. I would be most concerned if my GP did not know the difference between bacteria and viruses.
Dr Cullen writes about "concerns in relation to the health impacts of genetically engineered food, and in particular, the decision to grant permission for the planting of genetically engineered potatoes in Ireland". This is a non-sequitur. Field trials of potatoes will not involve human consumption, and therefore health impacts do not arise.
Dr Cullen refers to a number of animal feeding trials, without citations, without commenting on the particular recombinant proteins concerned, and without indicating that these GM plants were not developed as new food varieties. Of course if you express a toxic protein in a plant (as in the well-known potato experiments by Dr Pusztai, which I presume Dr Cullen is referring to), it will cause adverse affects in feeding trials.
This is not a feature of GM technology, and the tendency of GM opponents to clump together all GM plants as if they were the same, is arguably their most dishonest tactic.- Yours, etc,
- Philip J Dix, Maynooth, Co Kildare.
Bollgard-II Cotton Hybrids Approved In India
- CropBiotech Update, May 19, 2006l www.isaaa.org
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India’s biotech regulatory body, recently approved the commercial release of four varieties of Bollgard-II cotton hybrids belonging to three Indian seed companies for planting in the country’s central cotton growing zone.
The Bollgard-II (commonly referred to as BG-II) cotton hybrids were developed by MAHYCO, and contain stacked Cry X (Cry I Ac and Cry 2 Ab) genes (event MON 15985) developed by Monsanto. The hybrids provide season-long control of key lepid5opteran pests. A significant advantage of the BG-II cotton hybrids is that they aid in delaying the development of pest resistance to the Cry1Ac protein.
This is the fourth biotech cotton event approved in India since the commercialization of the first genetically modified cotton in the 2002-2003 planting season. So far, 40 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids have been released. Another important development is the approval for the export of transgenic eggplant (Brinjal) seeds containing the cry1Ac gene (MAHYCO EE-1 event), from India to Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Decisions from the GEAC meeting are available at: [ http://www.envfor.nic.in/divisions/csurv/geac/geac-66.pdf ]http://www.envfor.nic.in/divisions/csurv/
geac/geac-66.pdf. For more information, contact Bhagirath Choudhary of the ISAAA South Asia Office at [ mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org ]email@example.com
Genetics Moves Corn Belt
- Tom Webb, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 23, 2006 http://www.philly.com/
St. Paul, Minn. - For years, Iowa and parts of Minnesota were the nation's Corn Belt. But now, so is a good chunk of North Dakota, which was once considered too chilly for raising corn and soybeans. The same holds true for the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota.
And Kansas, which features wheat on its license plates, now grows more corn than wheat despite its hot and dry summers.
What is changing the Midwest is plant genetics. High-tech varieties of corn and soybeans are letting farmers reliably grow row crops where they never could before, and the results are confounding the grain trade. The change has been building for several years, but the magnitude of the shift hit home last fall when a severe summer drought wracked the eastern Corn Belt - yet the crop flourished.
"I thought there was no way" corn could do well, given the heat, said Joe Victor, vice president of marketing at Allendale Inc., a grain-trading firm in Illinois. "Every day was 98 degrees, no rain. I thought, this crop is in trouble."
But a new generation of super-plants had changed the game, and redrawn the map. While genetically modified crops remain controversial overseas, they have become commonplace here. "North Dakota has gone from hardly any soybeans to one of the leading soybean-production states in the United States," said Mike Vande Logt, a vice president at Croplan Genetics. He said that, over the last five years, one could say that the growing region "is moving 60 miles north every year."
In Otter Tail County, northwest of St. Paul, Dave Johnson was out on his tractor in the third week of April, probably the earliest in the season he had ever planted corn. "When I started growing corn almost 40 years ago, we weren't considered in the Corn Belt at all," Johnson said. "We were considered too far north, so the seed companies weren't breeding any corn for this region. Things have changed a lot."
Now, those changes are accelerating, shattering old patterns and raising new questions. With genetic engineering, is drought such a big threat anymore? Or weeds? Or bugs? Will more corn growers lead to overproduction? Or will a booming ethanol industry crave the crop?
Agriculture is sorting out the answers.
A decade of biotechnology has allowed crop breeders to change a plant's genetic instructions, just as a chef changes a recipe. Here is a sample of what scientists have been coaxing plants to do:
Fight bugs. By engineering insect resistance, corn breeders have created ways to fend off destructive pests such as the corn borer and corn rootworm.
Battle drought. By protecting plants against insects, scientists have realized a second benefit: better drought tolerance.
Grow quickly. Frost-free days are so scarce in North Dakota that growing a decent corn or soybean crop had long been difficult. But now, seeds are better engineered to pop out of chilly ground and start growing.
Thrive in crowds. Dave Nicolai, a University of Minnesota extension educator in Hutchinson, said more plants now can be crowded onto every acre, increasing yields and potential revenue.
These magic traits, however, do not come cheap, and not every farmer wants to pay the price. Moreover, genetically modified crop varieties, while becoming commonplace in the United States, face considerable resistance abroad.
Johnson, the Otter Tail County farmer, has wrestled with both issues. So he picks and chooses - planting genetically modified seed when he needs a special trait, but also non-genetically modified soybeans that fetch a premium price. To fight rootworm, he will skip the special seeds, rotate his crops, and pocket the savings.
"We try to outguess the money and the bugs," Johnson said.
Science Communicators 'Must Promote Public Debate'
- Hepeng Jia, SciDev.Net May 18, 2006
Science communicators should encourage public debates about science and technology, rather than simply tell people about the subject, a conference has heard. The call was made yesterday (17 May) at the ninth conference of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) in Seoul, South Korea.
Hee-Je Bak, a professor of science communication at Kyung-Hee University said public debates about science and technology can promote a better balance of power between scientists and the public, especially in the developing world.
He said that efforts over the past few decades to teach people about science and technology through public hearings on government decisions, citizens' advisory committees and surveys had been far from satisfactory.
Bak told SciDev.Net that researchers tend to avoid interacting with the public directly because they think public understanding of science is too limited to make it worthwhile, but that this is partly because scientists are often hard to understand.
He pointed out that the situation has been different when scientists have been forced to defend their work because of public opposition, as in the case of research into genetically modified crops. Bak says that groups such as the PCST can help by promoting debate between scientists and the public, so that citizens can influence the direction of research to bring maximum benefit to them.
Bruce Lewenstein, a professor at Cornell University and a member of the executive committee of the PCST says that the two goals of promoting debate and conveying information are not contradictory.
"If the public is to participate in a debate, they must first know some basic information about it," he says.
Custom Art From Your DNA
DNA 11 creates unique, high-end digitalized art from DNA. Using a non-intrusive collection method, the company utilizes the most artistically-valid method available to capture the genetic fingerprint and transform it into an artistic representation of a person's life code. A DNA portrait is the ultimate conversation piece in any home or office.
The idea for creating high-end, unique abstract art from DNA began when the co-founders of DNA 11 were viewing scientific DNA images and realized the beauty and uniqueness of these images could translate into extraordinary, one-of-a-kind abstract artwork.
And so the process of finding the best method of capturing this beauty began. After months of experimenting with many different ways of representing unique DNA fingerprints they discovered a method that best captures the organic beauty of DNA.
David Suzuki Calls Himself "An Old Fart" but Calls James (Double Helix) Watson an Ars# h01#
See the video at http://www.terry.ubc.ca/index.php/2006/05/22/the-biotech-context-video/
The Biotech Context
David Suzuki "As a geneticist, I am thrilled and excited with the profound insights and manipulative powers acquired by molecular biologists. I am absolutely sure there will be important applications that will be derived from this technological prowess. However, I also believe it is far too premature to begin to apply these techniques for medical treatments, food; or to condone the release of manipulated organisms into the wild (like salmon or trees).
While our acquisition of knowledge has been stunning, biotechnology is an infant field where our technological dexterity has not been matched by our understanding of the complex interactions and interconnections that make an organism and community of organisms what they are. Nor does this knowledge guarantee its confident and ethical use in the arenas of economics or politics. In this talk, I will present my case for the hazards of our current rush to apply this limited knowledge."