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Date:

March 12, 2007

Subject:

GM: A healthy debate; USDA tries to block planting of popular rice; Catching up with cloning; Deadly Organic Spinach; A Year Later, Organic Just Mild, Not Hot; Genetically Modified Crops; Seeking better biotech 'yields'; In Punjab village, everyone loves BT; and more.

 

Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org March 12, 2007

* GM: A healthy debate
* USDA tries to block planting of popular rice
* Catching up with cloning
* Deadly Organic Spinach
* A Year Later, Organic Just Mild, Not Hot
* Genetically Modified Crops
* Seeking better biotech 'yields'
* In Punjab village, everyone loves BT
* Gene-Stacked Bollgard II in India
* Protein to be produced from barley
* Sharing genes a common affair, studies show
* Remote sheep population resists genetic drift

--------------------

GM: A healthy debate

- Jess Halliday, Food Production Daily, 12/03/2007, http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/news/ng.asp?n=74888-gm-health

The development of genetically modified crops to improve human health could be the golden ticket for advocates to persuade the wary public that GM is not a wholly nefarious idea after all. But will a new, healthy spin be enough to counter deep-rooted fears that genetic modification, by its very nature, poses an equal and opposite threat to human health?

Ever since food from crops genetically modified to resist pests, produce bigger yields, or grant some other benefit for the farmer started to appear on the market in the mid 1990s, consumers have sniffed suspiciously at the idea.

"How do we know it's safe?" "I don't want food that's been mucked about with, thank you very much".

It is easy to see why they are turning their noses up like petulant toddlers when GM food is peddled with the underlying message: "Eat this, it's good for the farmers".

But last week two GM food projects made the headlines that introduce a new twist to the GM debate - health.

California-based Ventria Bioscience received preliminary approval from the US to cultivate over 3,000 acres of rice engineered with human genes to produce lactiva and lysomin, proteins that occur in breast milk that have shown potential in speeding recovery of children with diarrhoea.

Then Monsanto and The Solae Company announced they are joining forces with their respective projects to genetically modify soybeans as a source of omega-3s - (long and shorter chain), with a view to giving the food industry a new source of the healthy ingredient within five years.

When the message is "Eat this, it's good for you" or "Let the poor children of Africa eat this, it's good for them," that strikes a chord with two major themes of modern consciousness - eating for health and wellness, and doing whatever we can to stamp out disease and deprivation in the developing world.

Such messages could well sweeten the fork-load so that the consumer starts to sniff at it in temptation. If it smells good enough they'll wolf it down in one.

But wait. Hold that fork poised mid-air between plate and mouth for just one moment. It's not quite that simple.

Re-enter the anti-GM lobby, which has long campaigned against tinkering with genes on the grounds that we do not know the true effects on human health.

What is more, the record of keeping GM crops entirely separate from non-GM is not so good. The US authorities recently revealed that GM traces had been found in samples of non-GM rice, prompting the EU to clamp down on imports from the other side of the Atlantic on the grounds that it is a variety unapproved in Europe.

When crops are engineered to have properties that some would call pharmaceutical (others, nutraceutical), the nightmare scenario is contamination occurring when a gust of wind sends seed billowing across field boundaries. So anti-GM thinking goes, this introduces the risk of inadvertent over-dosing.

No-one wants to sit down to a bowl of what they think is perfectly innocent rice pudding, only to find that in fact it contains ingredients that at best they don't need, at worst cause them to OD on a medicine they didn't even know they were taking.

The battle lines are being drawn for the next stage in a fiercely fought war.

The new developments mean both sides are finally talking about the same measurable quantity - impact on human health.

But the outcome shouldn't be determined by who can shout the loudest at consumers: "Pick me, I'm the healthy one. Really I am".

It should be determined by scientific evidence that the benefits are real, and that they are not cancelled out by detrimental effects - whether the person consumes the food deliberately or accidentally.

On every consumer's lips, no-matter how a-quiver they are with temptation or emotion, should be the words: "Show me the scientific proof, and I'll eat the pudding".

*******************

USDA tries to block planting of rice popular with Arkansas farm

- High Plains Journal, March 12, 2007, http://www.hpj.com/archives/2007/mar07/mar12/USDAtriestoblockplantingofr.cfm

WASHINGTON (AP)--A rice variety that was the second-most-popular for planting last year in Arkansas has been targeted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A USDA official said March 5 that the agency is trying to block the planting and distribution of the long-grain rice seed designated Clearfield CL131 because it may contain traces of genetically engineered rice.

The department began telling distributors March 4 they must hold the rice seed, scheduled for planting this spring.

The seed is trademarked by BASF AG, a German company that is the world's largest chemical maker, and licensed for marketing by Horizon Ag of Memphis, Tenn. Farmers also are being notified, the department said.

Clearfield CL131 was not developed as a genetically modified rice, the department said. Even so, BASF and Horizon Ag reported to the department in late February that test results had shown possible traces of unapproved genetic material.

In February, the Arkansas Plant Board voted 5 to 1 to allow farmers in the state to plant Clearfield CL131, despite those possible traces of unapproved genetic material. Arkansas is the nation's largest producer of rice.

"USDA, through its own testing, is in the process of confirming the results reported by BASF Corporation," said Ron DeHaven, head of the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

DeHaven said trace levels of an already-approved genetically engineered trait also were identified in Clearfield CL131 recently.

"Because of the possibility that the genetic material in question is regulated," the inspection service is investigating "to determine the circumstances surrounding the release and whether any violations of USDA regulations occurred," he said.

In a similar case, an unapproved strain of genetically modified rice made by Bayer CropScience AG, Liberty Link Rice 601, was discovered in grain elevators last year.

European Union nations decided to test all U.S. long-grain rice imports to make sure they did not contain biotech varieties not approved by the EU. The department subsequently approved the rice.

*******************

Catching up with cloning

- Darren Dunlap, News Sentinel (Knoxville), March 11, 2007, http://www.knoxnews.com/kns/local_news/article/0,1406,KNS_347_5409535,00.html

Since Dolly, Millie, focus has been on animals, not humans

Ten years after Scottish researchers cloned Dolly the sheep, what people feared most hasn't come to pass. No one has cloned a human being.

A group at Newcastle University in England reported in 2005 cloning a human embryo, but that's as close as anyone has come, said Bruce McKee, chair of the University of Tennessee Department of Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology.

What's happened instead is a focus on cloning animals for research and breeding purposes - and preparations for the possible distribution of animal food products into U.S. markets.

UT has established a reputation as a leader in the cloning field, producing a number of cows, some of which are alive today. Its research continues, although scientists say they're not cloning animals at the moment.

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration signaled its tacit approval of the sale of meat and milk from clones of cattle and pigs. It's currently soliciting public comment.

Scientists remain a long way from cloning a human being for reproductive purposes, although there is support from some governments in Europe for therapeutic cloning, which involves developing embryos for the purpose of improved treatment of disease.

"Scientists need to work with stem cells so that they can learn how to control their development into various kinds of specialized cells," said McKee. "We don't understand how to do that very well yet."

UT researchers cloned the first Jersey cow in the U.S. in 2000. Her name was Millie, short for Millenium, and she was followed by Emma in 2001.

Dolly, named in honor of entertainer Dolly Parton, was born in July 1996, but scientists at the Roslin Institute in the Edinburgh, Scotland, area waited until Feb. 22, 1997, to announce her birth.

Dr. Lannett Edwards, a reproductive physiologist who studies dairy cattle, led research efforts at UT and was also a visiting scientist at the Roslin Institute when Dolly was born.

UT cloned the cows to learn more about early embryonic development, animal fertility and the genetic links associated with animal disease. Scientists wanted to know more about mastitis, an inflammation to the mammary gland of dairy cattle caused by infection, trauma or injury to the udder. Edwards said they were also trying to clarify the overall effect of cloning on the animal and to detail and highlight its limitations.

She also makes those limitations clear in public presentations, which she makes to civic groups, service organizations and churches.

Thomas Klindt, interim dean of UT's Agricultural Experiment Station, said UT doesn't anticipate cloning any more dairy cows in the immediate future. Cloning research at the experiment station is strictly limited to farm animals.

"Basically, we've established that we know how to do it and can get it done. Doing research on the cloning process itself was a part of what we were doing," said Klindt, who was at UT when Millie was born. "Until we come up with reasons - research reasons for needing clones - we probably would not."

Cloning, he added, is expensive. UT cloned Jersey cows from 2000 to 2003. Though Millie and Emma died, there's a healthy herd of about six to seven, kept at a location UT officials decline to reveal, that researchers are monitoring for longevity and health.

You want me to drink what?

Glenn Graber, a UT bioethicist, isn't surprised by the U.S. government's consideration of meat and milk from cloned animals.

"I think we're moving toward a gradual acceptance. You have companies like (Mayfield's) now saying, 'Oh, we'll never use cloned milk,' " said Graber, a UT professor of philosophy who also taught ethics to resident doctors at the University of Tennessee Medical Center for 25 years. "But there are going to be people who accept it.

"In animal cloning, the questions are mainly safety of the animal - humane issues to the animal - and then safety of the product," said Graber. "That's still a concern. People are worried about milk from cloned cows."

Extensive evaluation hasn't identified any "food consumption risks or subtle hazards in healthy clones of cattle, swine or goats," according to the FDA's draft risk assessment.

The FDA, however, is asking producers and breeders to refrain at present from introducing products from clones into the food supply.

There's a certain "yuck" factor with cloning that may deter consumers, said Edwards.

Cloning is still a very inefficient procedure, she said. It took several attempts to clone Millie, she said. Researchers at the Roslin Institute required several more for Dolly.

"This can't be done en masse, on a large scale," Edwards said. "This is something that each one you have to sit there and physically do - remove the DNA from each egg. There's not a robot, or anything automated about it.

"Millie was one out of 95 attempts, and that was an incredible effort. I sat there and I did every one of them, but you don't do all of that in a day."

Also, most dairy and beef producers won't be able to afford to clone animals, said Edwards. They'll be cloning animals for breeding stock, not for consumption, she said.

With cloning, researchers have the potential to take the genetics of that "very limited few" and make multiple copies of them, according to Edwards. Then, those cows can be mated with the very best bulls.

"To maximize and hopefully transmit those really good traits that move the industry forward," said Edwards.

Drawbacks and benefits

Some oppose organizations cloning farm animals.

The University of Minnesota's Organic Center issued a 22-page report on the matter. James Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at UM and author of the report, argued that cloning "offers no advantages for consumers," for instance.

Riddle said in the report that there's no shortage of meat or milk in the United States. Nor is there a shortage of highly productive breeds and lines of livestock, he noted.

But cloning could mean more disease-resistant animals, according to scientists. UT scientist Steve Oliver has identified cows that were susceptible and resistant to mastitis, a dairy cow disease that costs producers $2 billion annually, said Edwards. Both types have been cloned and are being studied by UT.

Thus far, the cloned herd at UT is in good shape.

"Once they reach maturity, I think they are perfectly normal cows that act like every other cow in virtually every way we can think of," said Klindt. "There were some early in their youth and adolescence that had a little bit of health problems, but after that I think they were alright."

********************

Deadly Organic Spinach

- Center for Global Food Issues, March 9, 2007, http://www.cgfi.org/cgficommentary/deadly-organic-spinach

Organic food activists are being served a heaping platter of organic crow now that we finally learn last fall's outbreak of deadly E. coli O157:H7 was caused by organically grown spinach.

On Tuesday (February 27th), California food regulators admitted under direct questioning at a state senate hearing that the tainted spinach that ultimately killed 3 and sickened over 200 was traced to a 50-acre organic field - contrary to the repeated denials of organic activists.

They're still denying it. The spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association told us the contaminated spinach "does not meet the legal definition of organic" because the farm was "in transition" - the mandatory 3-year period when the product must be sold as conventional. During the phase-in, however, the farmer must use only "organic" fertilizers, such as bacteria-laden manure and manure compost.

When the organic revelation surfaced last week, we emailed our long-time ideological adversary Chuck Benbrook, who runs the industry-funded Organic Center for Education and Promotion. Chuck was the former head of the National Academy of Science's Board on Agriculture until he was dismissed for pushing his organic agenda too far into Academy reports.

Chuck insisted that "there is zero evidence that anything [the organic farmer] did opened the door to the pathogens; no compost was applied on the field." But he wouldn't say what, if any, organic fertilizer was applied to the spinach field.

Mum's the Word.

From the beginning, we have repeatedly asked the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies if any of the suspected farms were organic or "transitional organic," and whether they used animal manure (composted or not) as a fertilizer on the suspected spinach crop. We've never received an answer to this simple, basic question.

Instead, the FDA and California Department of Health Services have settled on the theory that the E. coli came from angus beef cattle raised on nearby pastures. (See the ranches website, http://www.paicinesranch.com/) Investigators found matching E. coli in the feces of the ranch's cattle and also in a feral pig killed on the ranch. The officials have openly speculated that feral pigs could have transferred the E. coli from the cattle pastures to the spinach field, noting holes in and under the fences on the ranch.

Many organic believers have seized on this theory to continue their ceaseless bashing of "industrial cattle feedlots." In this case, however, they are only shooting themselves. The ranch in question is strictly a grass-only, pasture-based operation -- the kind they themselves advocate as the "safe alternative" to so-called "factory farms." (See: http://www.paicinesranch.com/grass-fed%20beef.htm)

The ranch's website even refers visitors to a website that claims people who eat grass-fed beef have "a much lower risk of becoming infected with the [E. coli bacteria]" and that E. coli O157:H7 from grass-fed cattle are far less likely "to survive the natural acidity of our digestive tract."

Maybe, maybe not - the research is contradictory and ongoing. But in this case the claims ring hollow to the hundreds of spinach victims and their families.

Moreover, other research indicates that organic methods are at best no safer than non-organic methods. At worst, they're significantly less safe. Research from the University of Minnesota published in 2004 found organic lettuce was the most contaminated they tested (one in four heads carried generic E. coli, an indicator of bacterial contamination). Overall, the organic produce was six times more likely to harbor E. coli than produce from conventional farms. The scientists also found potentially deadly Salmonella on organic lettuce and green peppers, but not in any conventional foods tested. The sample sizes were too small to say whether this difference was statistically significant.

The contamination echoes the findings of Consumer Reports, who reported in January that organic chicken harbors 300% more Salmonella than cheaper, non-organic brands they tested. Ditto similar studies from Denmark and Britain. Last week, the British environment agency reported that they could find no evidence that organic foods are any better for the environment, either, despite the shrill insistence of organic activist groups.

We wish we could say that the news the tainted spinach was organic surprised us, but given the multiple research findings indicating greater bacterial risk, we suspected it all along.

************************

A Year Later, Organic Just Mild, Not Hot

- Jessica Wohl, PlanetArk, March 12, 2007, http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/40771/story.htm

CHICAGO - Organic was expected to be the next big food trend after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others threw their weight behind the products, but many executives said this week that overall, consumers are not yet clamoring for such fare.


"It was a big push a year ago," Alan Jope, Global Food Group Vice President at Unilever Plc, said at the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago this week. "Wal-Mart asked everyone for organic (food). At the end of the day consumers buy benefits and it's not exactly clear what the benefits are from organic. They might end up being niche propositions."

Still, many food and restaurant executives said that their companies are working on organic and natural products to meet the demand from those who want them.

The US Department of Agriculture has had standards in place since 2002 for organic products, which are produced free of pesticides and genetically modified crops. But at this point, the term natural is used loosely.

Last year, Hormel Foods Corp. petitioned for more stringent guidelines for foods carrying the "natural" label. It contended that a natural product does not have artificial flavorings, colorings, other synthetic ingredients or preservatives and is not more than minimally processed.

Cadbury Schweppes Plc expanded the distribution of Mott's organic apple juice when Wal-Mart allocated more shelf space to organic products, and sells organic apple sauce.

"You've seen the growth in organics," said Cindy Hennessy, senior vice president of innovation at Cadbury Americas beverages. "Consumers are definitely walking the talk across all health, but including organics. It's not as rapid as Wal-Mart might have liked or as any of us might have liked, but it is definitely growing."

Kenneth Harris, managing director at Cannondale Associates, said that consumers are really looking for "authenticity," whether the product be organic or locally procured, a niche that is gaining in popularity, with stores touting that produce and dairy products come from local farms.

At the same time, many consumers won't pay the higher price that comes with organic products, executives said.

"As soon as taste and price also match the desire for these more altruistic things like organic, you'll see much more movement," Cadbury's Hennessy said.

ORGANIC OR NATURAL

Organic food is moving mainstream, with grocer Safeway Inc. touting its own organic line after seeing the success at Whole Foods Market Inc. and the smaller grocer Whole Foods plans to buy, Wild Oats Markets Inc..

But as they wait for the organic trend to catch on with more consumers, food companies are also pushing natural food, which may bewilder shoppers. Terms such as natural do not yet have strict guidelines.

"One of the things that is somewhat confusing I think today is the term natural," said Tyson Foods Inc. CEO Richard Bond. "In our consumer research that we did, the consumer is very confused about what natural means ... and I think it's important for our government to end up with some sort of a standardized process of what natural means across food and I think we'll get there."

A government comment period about the definition of natural just closed on Monday, Bond said.

"I think there is a demand for a standardization of the word natural, but it is no doubt one of the fastest growing areas within the consumers' desire and needs," Bond said.

Bond said that the natural sector is one of the company's focuses for new product development.

Meanwhile, Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger said that while there are consumers who want organic products, that segment of the market may be too expensive to make it worthwhile for a company like his to pursue.

"We feel natural is a better arena for us to play in," he said. "We believe the natural market is the larger opportunity."

Another major US food producer, H.J. Heinz Co., already sells organic and natural versions of some top-selling products, such as ketchup.

"Where there's an opportunity for organic and natural, we sell it," said Heinz Chairman and CEO William Johnson.

"People perceive, rightly or wrongly -- and I'm not making a value judgment -- that they're healthier," Johnson said.

In the restaurant arena, a chain known for fruit drinks hinted that it may start using organic produce.

"We don't use any today and I believe ... that we should offer either products or ingredients using organics and we're looking into that," said Jamba Inc. CEO Paul Clayton.

Others, however, are sticking to what they're known for.

Ruth's Chris Steak House Inc. Chief Executive Craig Miller said that some steakhouses have opened up in the last few years that highlight organic beef, and his company tests products, such as selling buffalo seasonally.

But don't expect its core menu to change.

"We are who we are, we sell US prime beef," Miller said.

********************

Genetically Modified Crops

- Press Information Bureau (Government of India/Ministry of Agriculture). March 12, 2007, http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=25794

Bt. Cotton is the only Genetically Modified (GM) crop approved for commercial cultivation by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, on the basis of environmental and bio-safety evaluations. Harmful effects of Bt. Cotton seeds on human and animal health, plant life and environment have not been reported.

There is no proposal with the Government to ban production and sale of GM seeds duly approved by the GEAC on the basis of their suitability in the various agro-climatic zone with regards to their performance.

Bt. Cotton seeds are being produced and marketed in the country by private seed companies. The Government has organized Public Awareness Programmes to educate the farmers about the risks and benefits associated with the GM crops.

This information was given in the Lok Sabha today by Shri Kanti Lal Bhuria, Minister of State for Agriculture in a written reply.

**********************

Seeking better biotech 'yields'

Sudhir Chowdhary, Financial Express, March 12, 2007, http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=157490

Genetic modification is going through the same fear process which many technologies have seen in the past. "Any new technology would reach perfection over time and the same holds true for genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops," says B Sesikeran, director, National Institute of Nutrition.

Despite remaining a sensitive issue here as well around the world, India is emerging as a test-bed for biotech crops. Several government-funded R&D projects are being carried out in research institutions to achieve this. Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, among others, are engaged in advanced research to develop transgenic rice.

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The march to explore new transgenic crops comes from the newfound confidence gained from growing acceptance of Bt cotton, the only transgenic crop approved for commercial cultivation. The country tallied the most substantial percentage increase at 192% or 2.5 million hectares to total 3.8 million hectares, jumping two spots in the world ranking to become the fifth largest producer of biotech crops in the world, surpassing China for the first time.

The United States continues to drive growth in North America and globally, accounting for the greatest absolute acreage increase in 2006 with the addition of 4.8 million hectares. Brazil leads growth in South America with an increase of 22% to total 11.5 million hectares of soybeans and biotech cotton. Growth also continues in the countries of the European Union (EU) where Slovakia became the sixth EU country out of 25 to plant biotech crops.

All in all, farmers around the world continue rapid adoption of biotech crops. Biotech crop area is now 102 million hectares. The number of farmers planting biotech crops too has gone up to 10.3 million. Agriculturalists expect these adoption levels to continue accelerating in the times to come. By 2015, more than 20 million farmers are expected to plant 200 million hectares of biotech crops in about 40 countries.

Scientists aver that the importance and potential of transgenic crops is hard to ignore. Importantly, India - a country with first-hand experience of the life-saving benefits of the Green Revolution in wheat and rice - exported rice and imported wheat last year. Yields in both wheat and rice are now plateauing and the conventional technology currently used in wheat and rice and other crops will need to be supplemented to feed a growing population that will increase by 50% to 1.5 billion by 2050. Hence, the aggressive focus in research on new biotech crops.

KC Bansal, principal scientist, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechology (NRCPB) says, "Higher adoption rates reflect farmer satisfaction with the products that offer substantial benefits ranging from better crop management, lower cost of production, higher productivity and net returns per hectare."

The adoption of Bt cotton by India and China can greatly influence the adoption and acceptance of biotech crops in countries throughout the world, particularly in developing countries. It is noteworthy that both countries elected to pursue a similar strategy by first exploring the potential benefits of crop technology with a fibre crop, Bt cotton, which has already generated significant and consistent benefits in China, with the same pattern emerging in India, the largest grower of cotton in the world.

Going forward, research focus will be on new robust varieties of food crops that could be drought or salinity tolerant, says Sesikeran. Biotech crops with drought-tolerant traits are expected to reach the market within the next five years, unlocking substantial production opportunities in dryer climates. Also, biofuels will be a major growth driver. Biotech crops will be used to increase the efficiency and meet added demand for alternative energy, as well as exploring biotech options to bring cellulose-based ethanol from energy crops to market.

No wonder, India's thrust on research will speed up the introduction of new biotech crops not only here but also influence others in adopting them.

**********************

In Punjab village, everyone loves BT

- Arijit Sen, CNN-IBN, March 11, 2007, http://www.ibnlive.com/news/india/03_2007/in-punjab-village-everyone-loves-bt-35787.html

Harkishanpura (Punjab): Everybody in Harkishanpura village, located in southern Punjab, swears by BT cotton. But it was also this village that was put up for sale by its residents not too long ago when the crops had failed.

Five years ago in a meeting, the villagers decided to put up their village for sale, but now BT cotton seems to have revived their fortune and seems to have changed their lives.

And though the wheels of political fortune have swung the other way for Captain Amarinder Singh, the village located in the Malwa belt remains faithful to him and BT cotton.

"Situation is improving for BT cotton. Though it's not a situation to repay loan but day-to-day needs are fulfilled," says a farmer.

But Harkishanpura is also the village where farmers, under severe debt, committed suicide over the past few months.

Therefore, many like Gurdawal Kaur - whose son Jeevan Singh was among the many who killed themselves - is skeptical about this newfound enthusiasm for BT cotton.

"The water is brackish and it does not matter to us if the crops are doing well," says Kaur.

It's a fear that finds support from scientists.

"The problem with BT is that there is not enough genetic literacy in villages, as a result of which, they have no refuge. They grow old and therefore sow older varieties," says scientist and member of National Commission of Farmers, M S Swaminathan.

So while as of now Harkishanpura seems to have come out of its "village for sale" times and everyone loves BT cotton, the question is how long will this run continue.

**********************

GENE STACKED BOLLGARD II COTTON IN INDIA

C Kameswara Rao Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education Bangalore, India krao+at+vsnl.com

BOLLGARD II

Bollgard I, the predominantly cultivated pest tolerant cotton, contains only one gene, the Cry 1Ac, from Bacillus thuringiensis. Bollgard II contains the Cry 2 Ab gene, in addition to Cry 1 Ac. The Bollgard II event developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd, (MMBL) is technically designated as MON 15985.

BOLLGARD II IS MORE PEST TOLERANT

While Bollgard I offers protection against only the major cotton pest, the American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), Bollgard II provides season long control of key pests of cotton including Spodoptera and Heliothis pests.

The major benefit of Bollgard I was a drastic reduction in the consumption of chemical pesticides and Bollgard II is expected to be even better in this regard. In Australia, Bollgard II has reduced pesticide use by up to 80 per cent.

In a decade of cultivation of Bollgard I in different parts of the world, there was no sign of development of resistance by the American bollworm to Cry 1 Ac protein. The synergistic influence of two genes in Bollgard II would further delay the development of resistance by the pests to the two insecticidal proteins.

BOLLGARD II IS WATER EFFICIENT

Two years of field experiments by CSIRO Plant Industry, Australia, showed that under normal full irrigation, Bollgard II cotton needed 10 per cent less water than an equivalent conventional variety and had higher yields. Bollgard II tends to produce bolls earlier than conventional cotton because insect damage does not delay early crop growth, has a more compact growing season and so needs less water overall, for the same or higher yields.

BOLLGARD II IN INDIA

In May 2006, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved for commercial release, Bollgard II cotton hybrids containing MON 15985, developed by several different seed companies, but only for the Central and Northern Zones. Bollgard II cotton hybrids have completed two years of large scale open field trials under GEAC and two years of trials by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research under the testing system of the All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project. Several other varieties suitable for all the three zones are expected to be approved for this year's cotton season.

The GEAC's approval of Bollgard II for commercial cultivation was based on the recommendation of the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation on the efficacy and safety of the two stacked genes and that of the Director, Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, that the event MON 15985 is as safe as non-transgenic cotton without any appreciable environmental risks.

BIOSECURITY OF BOLLGARD II

Some of the significant points that emerged from the biosecurity tests in India are:

1. outcrossing may occur only up to a maximum distance of 15 m; 2. there were no significant difference in germination, aggressiveness or weediness between Bollgard II and its non-Bt counterpart; 3. Bollgard II hybrids are not toxic to non-target insects; 4. Bt protein was not detected in soil samples indicating that Bt protein is rapidly degraded in the soil on which Bt cotton was grown; 5. there was no significant difference in populations of microbes and soil invertebrates like earthworms, between Bt and non-Bt soil samples; 6. there was no difference in proteins, carbohydrates, oil, calories and ash content between seeds of Bollgard II, Bollgard I and non-Bt; 7. no significant differences in feed consumption, animal weight gain and general animal health between animals fed with Bollgard II cotton seed and non-Bt cotton seed; 8. no significant differences were found between goats fed on Bollgard II and non Bt cotton seed and there were no toxic effects; and 9. feeding experiments conducted with Bollgard II cotton seed meal on fish, chicken, cows and buffaloes indicated that Bollgard II cotton seed meal is nutritionally equivalent, wholesome and as safe as the non-Bt cotton seed meal.

These data are in full agreement with the report in Australia, made to the Gene Technology Regulator, that Bollgard II posed no greater risk than conventional or existing Bt cotton in relation to various environmental and human safety parameters.

BOLLGARD II IN ANDHRA PRADESH

Bollgard II was not approved for commercial cultivation in the South Zone last season. Nevertheless, some farmers in the Warangal District have cultivated Bollgard II illegally, buying the seed in Maharashtra.

In November 2006, the Government of Andhra Pradesh (GAP) has put on hold, permission to Mahyco for selling Bollgard II cotton seed in the State. The GAP has asked the GEAC to provide an economic viability report, in the context of MMBL's claim that Bollgard II helps farmers to cut down inputs. .. Seed of Bollgard II was sold at Rs. 1,350 per packet for one acre of sowing, in the States of Gujarat and Maharashtra. But GAP wanted it to be sold at Rs 750, the same as for Bollgard I, irrespective of the pricing in other States. Such dual pricing will create complications, and ignores the costs of development for the companies and the benefits that would accrue to the farmer.

In the anxiety of not letting another season go by, MMBL has signed last week an agreement with the seed companies to sell a packet of Bollgard II seed at Rs. 1,000, in the ensuing season. However, this is subject to the approval of the Monopolistic and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission, before which there is a pending case, filed by the GAP, against MMBL, on Bt cotton seed costs.

When the GEAC approves Bollgard II for the South Zone and the GAP approves the seed sale price, Bollgard II will hopefully be a legal tender in Andhra Pradesh, this coming season.

A word of caution: Studies by the CSIRO Plant Industry have shown that Bollgard II had lower yields when it was moisture stressed from peak flowering to the end of flowering, when boll filling started. So Bollgard II should not be cultivated as an exclusively rain fed crop.

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Sharing genes a common affair, studies show

- Robert Sanders, University of California/Berkeley (press release), 8 March 2007, http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/03/08_genes.shtml

BERKELEY - Two new studies by University of California, Berkeley, scientists highlight the amazing promiscuity of genes, which appear to shuttle frequently between organisms, especially more primitive organisms, and often in packs.

Such gene flow, dubbed horizontal gene transfer, has been seen frequently in bacteria, allowing pathogenic bacteria, for example, to share genes conferring resistance to a drug. Recently, two different species of plants were shown to share genes as well. The questions have been: How common is it, and how does it occur?

In a report appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) researchers analyzed more than 8,000 different families of genes coding for proteins - families that represent the millions of proteins in all living creatures - to assess the prevalence of horizontal gene transfer.

They found that more than half of all the most primitive organisms, Archaea, have one or more protein genes acquired by horizontal gene transfer, as compared to 30 to 50 percent of bacteria that have acquired genes this way. Fewer than 10 percent of eukaryotes - plants and animals - have genes acquired via horizontal gene transfer.

In a second report published online by Nature on March 7, two species of bacteria living together in the pink slime of an acidic California mine were found to share large groups of genes. These genes code for proteins that work together, so by acquiring the entire block from another organism, bacteria can gain a new function that helps them adapt more quickly to the same type of environment - in this case, a hot, highly acidic, metal-rich broth.

This is the first observation of exchange of very large genomic blocks between organisms in a natural microbial community, according to UC Berkeley's Jill Banfield, who led the team of researchers from LBNL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the U. S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI).

"One of the key questions being debated was, 'Is horizontal gene transfer extensive and rampant, or is it a relatively rare event?'" said Sung-Hou Kim, professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and coauthor of the PNAS paper. "This becomes important in classifying organisms and comparing whole genomes to find their relationships.

"Our study shows that gene transfer is fairly common, but the extent in a given organism is fairly low - that is, most organisms have received one or more genes from a closely related organism. And while it's very likely that genes are transferred in chunks that are linked metabolically, I bet it's not always true. If a group of genes doesn't have value in a new environment for a new organism, it's not going to stick around."

"This provides important information about the conservation of genetic resources to enable life to survive and thrive," said ORNL's Bob Hettich, a co-author of the Nature paper. "Ultimately, the basic knowledge gained from this research will lead to a greater understanding of genetic diversity in related organisms and should lead to developments in human health and bioremediation."

Though the Nature findings about mine slime bear on the issue of horizontal gene transfer, the study's main goal was to detect, with high resolution, which organism is able to carry out what function within a natural, uncultivated microbial community, according to Banfield.

"In addition to revealing a history of genetic exchange between two dominant organism types in the mine, we show that it is possible to identify a large fraction of the proteins from coexisting organisms and determine which organism most of the proteins comes from, even if the organisms are quite closely related," said Banfield, a professor of earth and planetary science and of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley and also an LBNL researcher.

Banfield leads a long-term study of the community of organisms in mine slime obtained from the Richmond Mine near Redding, Calif. This microbial biofilm has turned out to be an ideal research subject, Banfield said, because the simple community contains few enough organisms that they can be used as a model system to uncover aspects of how microbes interact with each other and their surroundings in ways that are difficult or impossible in other environments.

Banfield contrasts her strategy of ever more detailed studies of a single site to that of Craig Venter, who has been sailing the world's oceans aboard his boat, Sorcerer II, sampling large communities of organisms to survey global diversity. After four years collecting vast amounts of genomic information, he plans to publish some of his analyses next week in the Public Library of Science, or PLoS.

In 2002, the mine was the source of samples for the first fairly comprehensive community genomic, or metagenomic, characterization of a natural microbial consortium. In 2005, Banfield and colleagues presented the first relatively large-scale analysis of the proteins that consortia members make to carry out the various metabolic tasks needed for life underground - work that revealed information about the machinery used to adapt to the extreme conditions in which they live. More recently, in 2006, research scientist Brett Baker, Banfield and colleagues reported that the biofilms harbor novel archaeal organisms that appear to be extremely small compared to other life forms.

"Analysis of how microorganisms respond to their environments and the role of exchange of genetic material in adaptation and evolution is important if we are to understand important environmental processes such as acid mine drainage, or even degradation of cellulose for ethanol production by microbial communities," added Banfield.

In their new paper, the researchers combine metagenomics with strain-resolved shotgun proteomics to show that different organisms are exchanging large blocks of their genes.

"Who's there and what are they doing are key questions in microbial ecology," said Banfield's colleague Vincent Denef, a post-doctoral researcher in UC Berkeley's Department of Earth and Planetary Science. "Our high-resolution, mass spectrometry-based community proteomics approach answers both at the same time. We can now tell apart closely related organisms, which we previously would have grouped as one species, and we can monitor and discriminate their behavior within the same natural community. These abilities will allow us to understand the implications of small differences in genome sequence and content on ecological performance, one of the key goals of the current microbial genomic sequencing efforts."

The other authors on the Nature paper are Ian Lo, Daniela Golstman, Genevieve DiBartolo, Gene W. Tyson, Eric E. Allen and Rachna J. Ram of UC Berkeley; Michael P. Thelen of LBNL; Nathan VerBerkmoes and Manesh B. Shah of ORNL; and J. Chris Detter and Paul Richardson of JGI in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Funding for this project, which is in the second of five years, is provided by DOE's Office of Science and Office of Biological and Environmental Research and by the National Science Foundation.

The lead author of the PNAS paper is In-Geol Choi, who, like Kim, is a member of the Physical Biosciences Division at LBNL. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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Protein to be produced from barley

- Iceland Review Online, 03/11/2007, http://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/daily_news/?cat_id=16567&ew_0_a_id=268780

Biotech company ORF Líftaekni and Skagafjördur community, north Iceland, signed an agreement this week regarding production of protein from genetically modified barley.

Managing director of ORF, Björn Örvar, told Fréttabladid the agreement involves examining the advantages of genetically modified barley and whether it can be cultivated in a certain area in Skagafjördur.

"Barley has a certain quality when it comes to protein production, which is used for different types of industries," Örvar said. He explained protein is used for obtaining certain textures in clothing and for processing food and chemicals.

"It is necessary to create variety in the economic life here and this technology offers a lot of exciting possibilities. [...] Protein could for example be used for bleaching paper in a much more environmentally friendly way than with traditional methods," Örvar added.

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Remote sheep population resists genetic drift

- Ryan Smith, University of Alberta (press release), March 8, 2007, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-03/uoa-rsp030807.php

A whimsical attempt to establish a herd of mouflon for sport hunting on a remote island in the Indian Ocean 50 years ago has inadvertently created a laboratory for genetic researchers and led to a surprising discovery.

A mouflon population, bred over dozens of generations from a single male and female pair transplanted to Haute Island from a Parisian zoo, has maintained the genetic diversity of its founding parents. This finding challenges the widely accepted theory of genetic drift, which states the genetic diversity of an inbred population will decrease over time.

"What is amazing is that models of genetic drift predict the genetic diversity of these animals should have been lost over time, but we've found that it has been maintained," said Dr. David Coltman, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Alberta.

"We think this has happened because natural selection is more important to the evolutionary process than is commonly believed," he added.

Genetic diversity refers to the total amount of possible gene combinations that a mating male and female couple can produce. Scientists believe greater genetic diversity corresponds with greater odds of survival and successful reproduction due to a greater variety of genetic tools an organism has to combat the forces, such as diseases, that may otherwise weaken or kill it.

Coltman believes the harsh environment of Haute Island, with its cold winters, scarce resources and grass-borne parasites, has "kept the mouflon on their genetic toes, so to speak."

He argues that the extreme conditions on the craggy, windswept island have prevented genetic drift due to the premium advantage the more genetically diverse mouflon on the island hold over their less genetically diverse cousins.

"This herd certainly challenges our understanding of genetic drift," he said. "And I think it shows us the power of natural selection."

Coltman and his colleagues, including Renaud Kaeuffer and Denis Réale from the University of Quebec at Montreal, and other collaborators from France, have published the results of their research recently in the journal Proceedings: Biological Sciences.

Haute Island sits in the Kerguelen Archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean and is more than 3,000 kilometres from its nearest port. The French government has used the island as a military outpost since the early 1900s, with French settlers arriving in the 1950s.

The Haute Island mouflon descended from two Corsican mouflons taken from the Vincennes Zoo in Paris in 1957. Mouflon are a hardy and fecund species of sheep, with the ewes able to produce an average of more than five offspring in a four-year lifespan. The Haute Island mouflon population peaked around 700 in the 1970s and since then has bounced between 200 and 600.

Coltman and his colleagues were able to trace the DNA of the original Haute Island mouflon couple using some samples of teeth, bone and fur that had been preserved from the Vincennes Zoo since in the 1950s. DNA samples from subsequent generations were taken from the mouflon that had been kept as hunted "trophies" in the 1960s, and then scientists arrived in the '70s and began collecting samples themselves.

"The Haute Island mouflon have presented us with a rare opportunity," Coltman said. "There may be other natural populations that may have been studied in a controlled environment over the years, but I don't think there has ever been one in which you've been able to trace the DNA of the original, founding couple."

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*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net. Prakash is traveling.