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September 4, 2006


Drought-tolerance; Stress Tolerance; President for promoting GM crops; Corn sufficiency with expansion of hybrid, Bt corn areas


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: September 4, 2006

* Panic over GM foods unnecessary - expert
* Advances in pinpointing plant genes for drought-tolerance
* NAC over expression makes rice drought, stress tolerant
* President for promoting GM crops
* RP can achieve corn sufficiency with expansion of hybrid, Bt corn areas
* Are genomic technologies the answer to world hunger?

Panic over GM foods unnecessary - expert

- Canberra Times, September 4, 2006

Controversial genetic modification technology can have health benefits and present environmental solutions, according to CSIRO program leader in genomics and plant development Elizabeth Dennis.

She said the ''unnecessary panic'' surrounding the technology was the result of conservatism and a lack of knowledge about GM in the community.

''Some people think it's unnatural to move genes around,'' she said. According to those who oppose the technology, ''if you use GM technology to switch off a gene, that's wrong. But if you use radioactivity to switch off a gene, that's OK''.

Dr Dennis pointed to the strict regulatory processes that screen GM products. Toxicology examinations are conducted, products are fed to laboratory animals even if they are not intended for food, allergy tests are run and measures are taken to ensure no pollen flows from the GM crops to other crops. Plants are also prevented from escaping and proliferating as weeds. ''In all the years since it has been released, there has been no medical condition that's been associated with GM food.''

In the end, it's up to the consumers if they buy it or not. If it's properly labelled and properly explained, people should be able to buy it.'' Dr Dennis said modified food could be healthier than non- modified food. Oils could be engineered to be healthier, modified starch could help with diabetes, and food for people in developing countries could have extra vitamin A and iron. However, it was possible GM technology could be abused. ''You could genetically engineer viruses. But in the same way, you could put chemicals in the water supply, you could make bombs. Any technology can be abused, but the proper regulatory processes will stop this.

''If you want to cause trouble, GM is a very slow way to go ... ''If I was going to be a terrorist, I wouldn't use GM.''

Advances in pinpointing plant genes for drought-tolerance

- Agweb.com, September 04, 2006, By Wayne Wenzel

Worrying about whether or not the forecast calls for rain may be a thing of the past when the next generation of drought-tolerant corn hits the market.

We’re not talking about breeding better plants with deeper roots or traits that prevent insect feeding. Now, genetic engineering and high-speed gene shuffling let breeders and engineers pinpoint the plant genes that affect crop yield under moisture stress.

After a decades-long marathon, today’s big three seed firms—Monsanto Company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Syngenta—are in a sprint for the finish line. Finally, it appears technology has advanced far enough for one or all of these companies to soon make a serious run at high-yielding, drought-tolerant hybrids.

For farmers, the timing could be perfect. As energy prices skyrocket and drought patterns shift, it can cost up to $100 to irrigate an acre of corn. Some aquifers are depleting at an alarming rate, and competition for limited water supplies is fierce. Meanwhile, corn production is under increasing demands to fuel ethanol plants, feed livestock and satisfy exports. With these forces at work, marginal acres, including those more prone to drought stress, could soon be growing corn.

While the market opportunity and technology for better drought hybrids exist, a cautious optimism pervades seed companies’ claims about drought programs. Their caution, however, is tempered by the need to compete.


Perhaps sensing the finish line, Monsanto recently broke from the pack, making bold statements about its drought research. The company’s CEO, Hugh Grant, announced this past spring that Monsanto will start commercial sales of drought-tolerant corn after the turn of the decade.

Grant also said the company has completed 53 large-scale field trials during the past two years and is now identifying the highest-yielding seeds. While Monsanto now pulls genetics from 36 germplasm pools around the world, much of Monsanto’s drought success traces back to its acquisition of DeKalb. One hybrid in particular, DKC63-78, has shown success against drought in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. Its drought tolerance comes from a specific Mexican inbred line.

Along with specific drought-tolerant germplasm, Monsanto also acquired DeKalb’s drought discovery and development work in Mystic, Conn. DeKalb’s long-time molecular research and breeding hub continues to be the center of Monsanto’s drought research.

John Headrick, chief of development for drought-tolerant corn at Monsanto, is optimistic that his company will be the first to come to market with yield-competitive hybrids engineered specifically to tolerate drought. But, he refuses to reveal too many details about the exact methods Monsanto is using to attain its goal. Concern about protecting intellectual property is high.

There are clues, however. Monsanto has released promotional photos and video of drought-tolerant hybrids not rolling their leaves under drought stress, so it would seem one key is the corn’s ability to maintain leaf surface area under drought conditions.

Despite the promotional teaser, Headrick is quick to point out that reduced leaf rolling is only one possible route to drought resistance. “Reducing plant water loss, or evapotranspiration, is one thing we look at in drought tolerance,” he says, “but we consider the whole plant from the roots up. It’s not absolutely necessary that leaves don’t roll at all; in fact, leaf rolling itself is a defense mechanism. The leaves on a drought-tolerant plant may still roll some and help preserve moisture. We’re looking at a number of leads and characterizing them in early stage field tests.”

Headrick also reveals that while Monsanto’s most recent tests in corn have been a success, earlier research that led to key pathways in drought tolerance was done in a plant called Arabidopsis. This small relative of the mustard family has been called the lab rat of plant genetics because it grows quickly and is relatively easy to work with genetically.

A quick search of the scientific literature shows that Michael Thomashow of Michigan State University was one of the first researchers to use Arabidopsis to discover a genetic mechanism that protects cell walls and membranes during periods of drought and cold. Some rights to his research were licensed to a company called Mendel Biotechnology, which began promoting the technology as Weathergard.

Today, Monsanto prominently stands out among companies that have research exchange agreements with Mendel Biotechnology. Monsanto and Mendel recently renewed their agreement.

So, is Weathergard the key to Monsanto’s program? Headrick will only say that the company is looking at many sources for drought tolerance, including simple microbes, native corn traits and other plant sources.


Jeff Schussler, a research scientist with Pioneer’s drought program, remembers an old joke from his days as a scientist with USDA. “If you want it to rain, establish a drought study.”

While Schussler admits the joke isn’t that funny, he says it demonstrates a frustration shared by corn drought researchers and farmers. In the Corn Belt, drought is common but unpredictable as to where it will strike.

Based on 50 years of data collected by USDA and Pioneer, Schussler estimates that in any given year, one-third of U.S. corn acres experience yield-reducing drought stress.

“Weeds and insects used to be the primary yield robbers, but now drought is No. 1,” Schussler says.

Over a decade ago, Pioneer built a greenhouse covering some of the corn research plots near the company’s Johnston, Iowa, research campus. With a roof and no sides, the “drought house” still keeps special drought-tolerant corn candidates dry in case of rain, testing the corn’s ability to produce a crop with less water.

Though still in use for early stage projects, Schussler says the drought house is mostly a relic of Pioneer’s old drought program. Today’s program is international in scope and includes research stations in arid areas.

Pioneer now dedicates two 200-acre research stations and thousands of test plots around the world entirely to drought research. One station in Woodland, Calif., receives less than 1" of rainfall during the growing season. Corn plots receive their water only through high-precision irrigation. A second station in a similarly arid region south of Santiago, Chile, allows for year-round drought research.

“Our drought candidates come from a three-pronged approach that includes conventional breeding, molecular breeding and transgenic programs that might move novel genes into corn,” Schussler says. “Sometimes our own conventional breeders and genetic engineers find themselves in a race to find the same solution.”

Thus far, Pioneer’s breeders have had some success. There have been bumps along the road, though. Pioneer’s early attempts to breed in or insert drought-resistant genes from sorghum into corn, for example, proved more difficult than expected. “We’ve learned that drought tolerance, like yield, is more likely the result of many genes interacting in the plant. This favors conventional corn breeding over single novel gene insertion like with Bt corn,” Schussler says.

But, technology helps a lot. Pioneer has identified promising drought traits in some inbreds by using marker-assisted breeding and high-speed gene shuffling technology from Verdia, a company purchased by Pioneer’s parent company, DuPont.

It also helps that Verdia’s labs in Redwood City, Calif., are just down the road from Pioneer’s drought station in Woodland. “The key for us has been to have all of the breeders, scientists and agronomists working together, looking at many more hybrids and inbred lines under drought,” Schussler says. “We’ve substantially accelerated this effort over the last decade.”

He points out that Pioneer has recently discovered several hybrids with exceptional drought tolerance and high yield potential. Some of those headed to market share a parent inbred from the recently successful 108- to 110-day Pioneer 33D11. The hybrid has shown an ability to throttle back its water use and maintain green leaves without rolling as much. It also tends to put out silks more robustly than other hybrids, silking a couple of days earlier than pollen shed.

“With continued research and breeding, we believe the old idea of having to select a racehorse hybrid for yield or a workhorse hybrid for drought response will be a thing of the past,” Schussler predicts.

Syngenta/Greenleaf Genetics

With its acquisitions of Garst and Golden Harvest and an agreement to share traits and germplasm with Pioneer through its Greenleaf Genetics subsidiary, Syngenta has an immense pool of corn genetics to sift through. Somewhere in those millions of DNA combinations lies the secrets to high-yielding, drought-tolerant corn.

Making sense of data and identifying promising targets require an army of scientists assisted by high-tech-enabled shotgun screening techniques. The process uses the latest robotic lab equipment and brute force computing to winnow down the DNA and its multitude of variations in corn.

Getting to the drought-tolerance finish line, though, also requires vision and a willingness to act on a hunch.

That’s where Syngenta’s drought project leader Scott Valentine thinks his company may have an advantage. With a Ph.D. specializing in chemical gene switches that turn genes on and off, Valentine focuses on finding the switch that tells corn to redirect energy and nutrients away from the kernel and into the leaves and stalks during drought stress.

“Corn’s drought response during flowering is key to most of the yield losses we see from drought, so it makes sense to focus our efforts there,” Valentine says. “We want hybrids that can set full ears during drought, but to do that, we have to understand why corn redirects its energy away from kernels.”

Valentine suspects that the key lies in a gene-switching mechanism that goes back to corn’s ancestral relative, teosinte. Rather than one or two big ears like today’s corn hybrids, teosinte continually produces many small nodal ears through its growth cycle. Shutting down seed production during a drought would not jeopardize teosinte’s reproduction because more ears could grow later. Modern corn only gets one shot at producing seed.

“Today, Syngenta has some corn candidates that appear to keep the yield effect of modern breeding and also stop the kernel abortion throwback trait of teosinte,” Valentine says. “In multi-year field trials, our lead event has shown consistent yield improvement over control hybrids. The yield improvement is far better than incremental—more than just 1% or 2%.”

Valentine won’t speculate on when commercial hybrids with Syngenta drought traits will be available. “Looking at native trait and biotech trait options for drought takes time. It’s harder than adding a new Bt protein, for example, because Bt is a foreign protein that does not interact with plant function. But, plant interaction is what controlling drought response is about. When we get it, I think drought resistance will be a broad-acreage trait that almost everyone will want.”

NAC over expression makes rice drought, stress tolerant

- ISAAA, September 04, 2006

Drought and salinity are major abiotic stresses to rice production, and have long been targeted in designing better rice.

To cope with such adverse conditions, plants develop physiological and biochemical strategies, such as by activating stress-related genes and synthesizing diverse functional proteins. The expression of such proteins is regulated by specific transcription factors, designated as NAM, ATAF, and CUC (NAC).

After successfully over-expressing NAC in rice japonica cultivar Nipponbare, Honghong Hu and colleagues of various research centers in Wuhan, China report that “Overexpressing a NAM, ATAF, and CUC (NAC) transcription factor enhances drought resistance and salt tolerance in rice” Their findings appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists found that transgenic rice had better drought resistance, and 22-35% higher seed setting than controls in the field under severe drought stress conditions at the reproductive stage. The transgenic rice also showed significantly improved drought resistance and salt tolerance at the vegetative stage. In all cases, growth and productivity were not affected in transgenic rice plants, as there were no significant differences in photosynthesis rates between transgenic plants and controls. When scientists profiled gene expression patterns, they found that a large number of stress-related genes were up-regulated in the transgenic plants. All these suggest that the technique holds promise in improving drought and salinity tolerance in rice.

Read the complete article at:

or view the abstract at:

President for promoting GM crops

- NEW IND PRESS, September 3 2006

New Delhi: President APJ Abdul Kalam on Friday said promoting of genetic engineering technology for crops could help the country to tackle problems of low productivity and also frequent drought conditions, low temperature spells and lot of salt affected areas.

There is need to search for genes to overcome these problems by developing stress tolerant and pest-resistant crop varieties. The pest resistant genes for various biotic stresses can be a big boon to the farmers and boost agriculture production substantially, said the President while delivering a key note address at a symposium on "search of new genes', commemorating birth centenary of eminent agriculutral scientist late B P Pal here.

'Plant Genomics' is the new emerging area of research which could be used as bio-factories producing useful proteins, therapeutic molecules, nutritional compositions, and stress tolerant varieties to meet the current and futuristic requirement of the society in eco-environment friendly manner.

Besides, the genetic engineering could help in adding to the crops more vitamin a, iodine, calcium and iron as to supplement diet.

There is a continuous reduction in the reserve of fossil fuel in the planet. India produces only 25 per cent of its total requirement and could reduce the import Bill by producing more biofuels by applying biotechnology on crops.

The 'genome' of the plant with 'metabolome' is the emerging field of functional genomics, a successor of gene, which finds large scale application in medicinal and aromatic plants to develop designer crops that would specifically produce the drug molecules and accumulate them in large quantities for use by pharma industry.


RP can achieve corn sufficiency with expansion of hybrid, Bt corn areas

- Manila Bulletin, By MELODY M. AGUIBA, Sep 4, 2006

The Philippines can achieve sufficiency in corn in one or two years if high-yielding hybrid corn including the genetically modified (GM) Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn can be intensively expanded on just an additional 200,000 hectares.

Jet G. Parma, Pioneer Hi-Bred Philippines Inc. (PHBP) country manager, told a press briefing the country needs to focus on propagating the use of hybrid corn that the country will no longer need to import corn.

"Hybrid corn area has stayed at 500,000 to 600,000 hectares over the past years. We only need five to six milllion tons of corn. If we can raise yield by five tons per hectare, we only need to expand hybrid corn on (an additional) 200,000 hectares to raise production by one million tons," he said.

Hybrid corn, a product of the cross-pollination of two varieties with superior characteristics, can readily raise farmers’ yield from an average of about three MT per hectare to as much as 10 MT per hectare particularly for the hybrid pest-resistant Bt corn.

The key to achieving such corn sufficiency, Parma said, is in government’s ensuring that corn prices does not go below P8 to P10 per kilo at farmgate and that importation is curbed in order to encourage farmers to plant corn.

"The question is how do we convince farmers to plant corn. It all depends on the prices," he said. "Government should stop corn importation."

The Philippines is expected to import at least 1.4 million MT of corn and corn substitute this year. Importation of corn is placed at more than 250,000 MT this year while corn substitute wheat’s importation may reach to 1.2 million MT, traders said.

At a total of 500,000 hectares planted to hybrid corn, the country only has a 21 percent hybridization rate compared to Thailand’s more than 90 percent hybridization.

The industry is also foreseeing an expansion in the corn borer-resistant Bt corn area by the end of 2006 to 70,000 hectares, up by 40 percent from abou 50,000 hectares in 2005, according to Benigno Peczon, Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines executive director.

At this expanded rate, Bt corn has a lot of room for growth with its more non-polluting impact on the environment along with the tremendous increase in income it brings to farmers, even despite higher Bt corn seed’s price compared to open pollinated varieties.

"Definitely (we have achieved a level of success in Bt corn propagation). We’re now at 80,000 hectares, and we’re getting positive feedback. It’s very encouraging," Parma said.

If a farmer harvests 10 MT per hectare from Bt corn and sell this at P8 per kilo, bringing a net income of P50,000 per hectare (P80,000 less P30,000 production cost), cost of Bt corn becomes reasonable as it just amounts to 13 percent of total production cost (at Bt corn’s seed cost of P4,000).

Peczon explained that if there was opposition on the use of Bt corn from environment-lobbying organizations like Greenpeace, this is not based on science.

"Opposition to Bt corn is ideologically-based and does not have a scientific basis," he said.


Are genomic technologies the answer to world hunger?

- SCIENCE DAILY, September 2, 2006

Genomic technologies may have the potential to alleviate food insecurity and food shortages around the world. Researchers believe that biotechnology has the potential to improve the nutritional content of food crops and, crucially, resistance to insects and disease. This could lead to improved yields of food crops for both human and animal consumption. Researchers are also working on 'molecular farming' -- production of pharmaceutical products in plants, with the potential to revolutionise vaccination procedures. However, these technologies are only likely to impact on world hunger if there is effective and efficient exchange of knowledge and experience through partnerships.

A keynote speaker at the ESRC Innogen Centre's Annual Conference to be held on 5th-6th September at Regent's College, London warns of a caveat to this enthusiasm for the introduction of genomic technologies. Dr Simon Best, Chairman of the Board of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid tropics (ICRISAT) highlights the need for greater and more efficient collaboration between the public and private sectors involved in this research. The Director of Development Partnerships for the International Potato Centre (CIP), Dr. Roger Cortbaoui, echoes these arguments saying there is a need to construct, "useful partnerships and networks including with the private sector" in an industry where basic research is dominated by public funded research centres.

Others argue that even greater private-public interactions are not sufficient. Dr Andy Hall, from the Maastricht Economic and Social Research and Training Centre on Innovation and Technology, believes members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) such as ICRISAT and CIP, are "struggling to deal with its limitations". Dr Hall argues for a strengthening of interactions with communities and society in general. Prof. Paul Richards of Wageningen University, says that not enough attention is being placed on involving the poor in decisions and research on the role of genomic technologies in dealing with food insecurity. The importance of these voices is explained by other speakers at the conference who highlight the complex negotiation of priorities by the different groups involved in these research decisions that usually exclude the poor who ought to benefit most as end users of these products.

These issues and more will be discussed at the ESRC Innogen Centre's annual conference entitled 'Genomics for Development: The Life Sciences and Poverty Reduction' to be held at Regent's College, London on 5th-6th September 2006.