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August 2, 2006


Africa cautiously sowing seeds of change; France moves towards GM; Drought-tolerant corn; Indian farmers to benefit more than last season


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: August 2, 2006

* Cautiously sowing the seeds of change
* France moves towards GM - opposition remains
* How Purple Corn And RNA Break Genetic Laws
* Several trends drive development of drought-tolerant corn
* Indian farmers to benefit more than last season: Monsanto


Cautiously sowing the seeds of change

- Business Day, 02 August 2006, By Derek Hanekom

THE decision to turn down an application by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to perform greenhouse experiments on genetically modified sorghum reinforces government’s commitment to public safety. This commitment is supported by ongoing efforts to enhance SA’s capacity to harness the potential of biotechnology to benefit the poor. Since 1997, SA has been involved in modern biotechnology. This involvement has yielded a range of commercially available genetically modified organism products, including pest-resistant or herbicide- tolerant maize, cotton and soya. To date this has benefited the country, and its producers, by improving crop yields and reducing costs. At the same time, however, government recognises the need to produce not only more food but better quality food.

Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from health problems associated with poor nutrition, including impaired immune systems, blindness and impaired neuropsychological development. It is estimated that in Africa 50% of children have a calcium, iron and zinc deficiency; one in 10 infants die before they are 12 months old; one in 10 children suffer from severe malnutrition; and more than one in five are physically stunted due to malnutrition.

The inadequate intake of essential micronutrients by many Africans is exacerbated by arid climates and poor soils that cannot support the food needed to supply these nutrients. On the climatic considerations alone, it stands to reason that there is a role for more experimental research on indigenous crops. An example is sorghum, one of the few crops that grows well in arid climates, but is deficient in most essential nutrients.

The need to conduct this type of research must be balanced with due consideration given to government’s responsibility to ensure that new biotechnology products or services do not threaten the environment or human life, or undermine ethics. While globally the jury is still out as to the best ways to regulate and apply this technology, SA is among those countries that have adopted a proactive approach towards establishing a responsible biosafety regime.

Decisions on applications for biotech research are taken by the executive council — a statutory body established by the Genetically Modified Organisms Act (No15 of 1997) comprising six government departments (science and technology, agriculture, trade and industry, health, labour, and environmental affairs and tourism). The act is being modified to incorporate issues and language pertaining to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This process is nearing finalisation.

To date, the vast majority of genetic modification work approved by the council is based on nonindigenous species — soya, cotton and maize. There are no compatible wild relatives that the genetically modified variety could cross with and the likelihood of these highly modified varieties becoming “super” weeds is therefore minimal.

However, when we start working with indigenous species, there is a chance that the modified gene may reach wild relatives, primarily through cross-pollination by wind or insects. So it stands to reason that the council may raise the bar for approvals of research of this nature. This appears to have happened in the African Biotechnology Sorghum project application. Provided the CSIR can demonstrate to the council that the sorghum is suitably contained, it may well reconsider its stance.

Given the importance of sorghum and other indigenous crops on the African continent, there is a compelling reason for us to conduct research in this field. This research will also enable us to better understand biosafety aspects, including the gene flow of indigenous crops, build capacity and skills and ultimately give us insight into better managing our genetic modification technologies.

Having said that, however, we do not want to undermine any legitimate biosafety considerations. In the near future, our research efforts in this regard will be given an added boost with the establishment of a biosafety and regulatory platform through PlantBio — a government- funded biotech innovation centre. The centre is involved in building capacity in plant biotechnology by assisting the development of relevant human skills, scientific and managerial competencies and by assisting in the creation of technology platforms that will serve research.

The proposed biosafety platform will provide scientific support to the national biosafety framework through a network of multidisciplinary scientists from publicly funded institutions. It will offer risk-assessment services to public and private sectors through developing a broader framework for risk analysis. Ultimately, this will enhance SA’s ability to co-ordinate the national policy framework through an independent body to facilitate research and verify risk-assessment data provided by biotech developers.

We must recognise that Africa’s “orphan crops” are not a point of interest for the big multinational seed companies, so if we want to produce improved varieties of crops that have evolved here we will have to do so ourselves. Obviously we need to understand the risks, and find the means to mitigate or manage these, but ultimately this is in keeping with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development objectives, by which we are taking responsibility for our own future. The failure of the recent Doha round of World Trade Organisation negotiations perhaps also emphasises the need to develop niche markets and African orphan crops.

Africa’s food insecurity means developing agriculture is an important objective. Genetic modification technologies — with potential for pest resistance, drought and herbicide tolerance, as well as improved nutritional characteristics — must surely be part of the solution?

- Hanekom is deputy science and technology minister.


France moves towards GM - opposition remains

- NutraIngredients, 7/31/2006, By Anthony Fletcher

Anti-GM pressure groups are targeting France just as the country appears to be growing receptive to the technology.

Last week, Greenpeace activists entered a GM maize field in Grezet Cavagnan, southern France, and carved a giant 'crop circle' with an 'X' in the maize, marking the field, according to the activists, as a contamination zone.

The action was in response to a ruling by a French court, in which Greenpeace France was ordered to take down maps from its website that showed the location of commercial GM maize fields in France.

"As we are now forbidden to publish these maps of GM maize on our web page, we have gone into the fields and marked it for real," said Arnaud Apoteker, of Greenpeace France.

"We will continue to show where GE maize is grown, until the French Government fulfils its responsibility and publishes an official register of GM fields that is accessible to every citizen."

According to a recent USDA GAIN report, France is set for an explosion in GM corn planting this year. The Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN) study said that French Bt corn acreage is expected to boom from 500 ha in 2005 to 5,000 ha in 2006, as a result of the economic advantages experienced by Bt corn growers in 2005.

"The pervasive presence of the European corn borer in Southern France provides strong incentive for further expansion," wrote Marie-Cecile Henard.

This might suggest that the historical rejection of GM technology in Europe is on the wane. The WTO of course famously ruled earlier this year that Europe had violated its trade rules by banning GM food imports between 1999 and 2003, a ruling welcomed by the US food industry that claimed the EU ban has cost them some $300 million a year in lost sales.

However, Henard admitted that this expansion of GM technology must be weighed against continued French consumer resistance. Earlier this month, Jose Bove and other high profile opponents of GM crops in France reaffirmed their commitment to destroy GM fields.

According to Bove, around 40 per cent of GM trials were destroyed in the course of seven acts of sabotage. And pressure groups such as Greenpeace remain intent on ensuring that the issue remains in the public eye.

The pro-GM lobby however believes that overly stringent regulations, based on public perceptions of danger rather than scientific evidence, have resulted in the unnecessary rejection of significant new GM-based products.

The French pro-GM farm community is also still hoping to receive some legal clarity in the coexistence area. The French Biotech Bill, which will set rules on GM and non-GM coexistence was voted on by the Senate last March but, since May, has been languishing in the National Assembly.

Coexistence remains a controversial issue and politicians are wary of acting on this legislation in the current pre-presidential and Parliamentary campaign period before the elections of May 2007.

Indeed, it is clear that Member States still need to be convinced that introducing genetically modified ingredients into food production is acceptable. The Commission has asked EU members over ten times to vote on authorizing a GMO food or feed product, but in the large majority of cases, there was no agreement or simple deadlock.


How Purple Corn And RNA Break Genetic Laws

- Science Daily, July 24, 2006

A newly cloned gene in corn will help explain how unusual interactions between a parent's genes can have lasting effects in future generations. The finding has implications for breeding better crop plants and unraveling complex genetic diseases.

Corn showing the purple coloration from active B-Intense genes. (Photo credit: Lyudmila Sidorenko)Ads by Google Advertise on this site

The new research indicates that an additional molecule, DNA's little cousin RNA, is needed for the intriguing gene interactions known as paramutation. Paramutation doesn't follow the laws of classical Mendelian genetics.

"Paramutation is this incredibly interesting, tantalizing violation of Mendel's laws," said senior author Vicki L. Chandler, director of BIO5 Institute at The University of Arizona in Tucson. "It's been known to exist for 50 years, but nobody understood the underlying mechanism."

Classical genetics states that when offspring inherit genes from their parents, the genes function in the children the same way the genes functioned in the parent.

When paramutation occurs, one version of the parent's gene orders the other to act differently in the next generation. The gene functions differently in the offspring, even though its DNA is identical to the parent's version.

It happens even when the kids don't inherit the bossy version of the gene. The phenomenon was originally found in corn and has since been found in other organisms, including mammals.

"In previous work we identified a gene that is absolutely required for paramutation to happen," said Chandler, a UA Regents' Professor of plant sciences and of molecular and cellular biology. "Now we've figured out what that gene does, and it's exciting because it suggests a mechanism for how this process works."

Chandler's work is the first to point out that an enzyme known as an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase is needed for paramutation.

Corn, also known as maize, is the most economically important crop plant in the United States. Better understanding of plant genetics will help breeders develop improved strains of crops.

Understanding paramutation and similar non-Mendelian genetic phenomena also has implications for human health. For some human diseases, a genetic component is known to exist but has been hard to decipher. Non-Mendelian effects may be at work in those diseases.

"Gene interactions in parents that change the way a gene functions in the progeny are going to contribute to very unexpected inheritance patterns that complicate identifying genes involved in human disease," said Chandler, who holds the Carl E. and Patricia Weiler Endowed Chair for Excellence in Agriculture and Life Sciences at UA.

Chandler and her colleagues will publish their new findings in the July 20 issue of the journal Nature. The article's title and a complete list of authors and their affiliations is at the end of the release. The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute funded the research.

The Chandler lab investigated a gene called b1 that controls whether a corn plant has a purple or green stalk. A plant has two copies of each gene, one from each parent.

One version, or allele, of the gene codes for a purple pigment. Generally, plants need just one copy of that allele, known as B-Intense or B-I, to be the color purple.

But whether a B-I-carrying plant is actually purple depends on the company B-I keeps. If the plant's other b1 allele is the "paramutagenic" B' variety, the B-I allele is silenced. The resulting plant is mostly green.

And although B-I's DNA doesn't change, in subsequent generations the silenced B-I allele behaves as if it had mutated -- the B-I-carrying progeny are mostly green, rather than being deep purple.

"It cannot revert -- it's a one-way street," said co-author Lyudmila Sidorenko, an assistant research scientist in Chandler's lab.

Chandler and her colleagues wanted to know how the B' allele changed B-I's behavior without actually changing B-I's DNA. They already knew that paramutation required normal versions of the mediator of paramutation 1 (mop1) gene.

Plants with normal mop1 genes and one B-I allele and one B' allele turned out as expected -- mostly green.

However, B-I/B' plants with two mutant mop1 genes were deep purple -- they looked as if the purple-suppressing B' allele wasn't present. This demonstrated that normal mop1 was necessary for the B' allele to silence B-I.

The scientists mapped mop1's location on one of the corn's chromosomes and cloned the gene. The mop1 gene makes an enzyme called RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RDRP). Mutant mop1 genes can't produce the enzyme.

The team had previously suspected a role for RNA, best known for mediating the transfer of information from DNA to a cell's protein-making machinery. This new result provides strong evidence that RNA is indeed involved.

The researchers hypothesize that mop1 amplifies the RNA signals coming from a key region of the B-I and B' allele. That key region is a particular DNA sequence that is repeated seven times.

The researchers hypothesize that those many RNA molecules silence the B-I and B' alleles.

Chandler said, "It's exciting because it's a new role for RNA."

The researchers' next step is figuring out exactly how RNA suppresses the function of the b1 gene and how those cease-and-desist orders are faithfully transmitted to progeny in the absence of changes in the DNA.

Chandler's co-authors on the article, "An RNA-dependent RNA polymerase is required for paramutation in maize," are Mary Alleman of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; Lyudmila Sidorenko, Karen McGinnis and Kristin Sikkink of UA; Vishwas Seshadri, now of Biologics Development Center Developing Businesses in Andhra Pradesh, India; Jane E. Dorweiler, now of Marquette University in Milwaukee; and Joshua White, now of the University of Texas at Austin.


Several trends drive development of drought-tolerant corn

- AgriNews, MARTHA BLUM, August 01, 2006

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. - Developing drought-tolerant corn is critical to growers and to the economy.

"Drought tolerance is a key second generation trait for Syngenta," said Scott Valentine, Syngenta's project leader for corn and soy traits, during last week's media day held at the company's biotechnology research headquarters, Syngenta Biotechnology Inc.

There are several trends driving the development of this trait.

"There is no question that the environment is becoming harsher for growing crops - higher temperatures and more occurrence of drought," Valentine said. "And with the pressure of biofuels, there needs to be higher yields on the acres, more consistent yields as well as an expansion of corn acres."

As Syngenta works to develop drought-tolerant hybrids, "these hybrids must have zero yield drag in years when there is no drought," he said.

In addition, the drought-tolerant hybrids must also yield on broad acreage.

"They must perform in high-yielding environments in the Midwest and in tough environments in western Nebraska," Valentine stated.

"We want the trait to function on a wide range of stresses - minor stress, moderate stress or a severe stress of a 40-percent yield loss," he explained. "And we wait the trait to allow producers to reduce water input on acres that are irrigated."

The focus for the second generation trait is to provide yield recovery.

"Under no drought stress, we expect a hybrid with the trait and one without the trait to achieve the same level of yield," Valentine said. "Then in those years we have drought, our trait will deliver back a significant level of yield recovery."

There are many stages of corn development that researchers can target for establishing drought tolerance.

"The No. 1 area we're focusing on is drought during flowering because the most significant yield losses occur at this time," he said. "The plants don't produce silks and you get poor kernel set."

The drought-tolerant hybrids are currently in the early development stage.

"We have generated many events and these events are now being tested in managed test trials," Valentine reported. "We are taking the hybrids to the field and simulating a drought where we can control the water and cause drought from one row to the next."

Since this trait is in the early development stage, it is difficult to predict when the hybrids may be available to farmers, Valentine admitted.

"So instead of promising a date, we promise that when we deliver these traits, they will perform without a yield drag," he stressed.

Valentine added that he is very excited about the trials testing the trait.

"We are giving the development of this trait our 100 percent effort," he said. "I'm confident that we will be successful because drought tolerance is a very important trait."

Indian farmers to benefit more than last season: Monsanto

- ASIA PULSE, August 1, 2006

New Delhi - US-biotech major Monsanto has said the economic benefits to farmers that would accrue due to adoption of Bt cotton seeds would be at least double this year as compared to last cropping season.

"The possible economic benefit would emanate from rise in area under the transgenic cotton seed in the current cropping season," a senior official of its Indian arm said.

The economic benefit due to adoption of Bt cotton seed to be around Rs 25 billion (US$536 million) for last year and expects this gain to touch even Rs 60 billion due to doubling of acreage under the transgenic crop this season, Monsanto India's managing director Felipe Osorio said at PHDCCI seminar on Bt cotton.

Pointing out that Bt cotton was grown in 3.1 million acres last season, Osorio said the acerage is estimated to grow significantly this season as the technology has led to 64 per cent rise in production and 25 per cent cut in pesticides use.

He called for joint partnership between private companies and Indian science institutes to develop more hybrids cotton varieties.

On the trait value or royalty charged by Monsanto, Osorio said contrary to common perception, prices of BT cotton seeds in China and Australia were high.

The prices in China range between Rs 1,100-1,200, while the equivalent in India is Rs 900, he added.

Sanchin Chaturvedi of Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) said, "we need to explore option beyond Bt cotton".

Social desirability and technology appropirateness should be the two basic ingredients for the national biotech policy, he said and added that the country needs technology to augment agricultural productivity in all crops.