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March 27, 2007


Harvesting perfection; No food vs. fuel debate with cellulosic ethanol; Proteins That Direct Plant Growth; Planting Deadline Looms For RR Alfalfa


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org March 27, 2007

* Harvesting perfection
* With cellulosic ethanol, there is no food vs. fuel debate
* Proteins That Direct Plant Growth
* Planting Deadline Looms For RR Alfalfa


Surinder Sud: Harvesting perfection

- Business Standard (India), March 27, 2007, http://www.business-standard.com/economy/storypage.php?leftnm=lmnu2&subLeft=3&autono=278929&tab=r

The private sector is pushing an initiative which will yield drought-, heat- and cold-tolerant genetically modified crops.

In just about one decade of commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops, biotechnology has effectively manifested its potential to revolutionise agriculture. While the first series of biotech seeds containing Bt gene was meant chiefly to protect the crops against pests with reduced use of pesticides, those in the pipeline aim at addressing the changing demands on agriculture and making the produce more versatile for different end-uses. What is really significant is that new initiatives in biotechnology are coming from the private sector and with wholly private investment.

Of course, the public funded research is also engaged in developing GM plants but it is way behind the private sector. Barring the insertion of pest-protecting genes in a few crops, the only other significant success of the public sector is the development of the Golden Rice that has a vitamin A-enhancing gene incorporated into it. But the private sector, on the other hand, has a much broader vision for future thrusts.

Monsanto, one of the leading multinational bioscience companies, can be a case in point. The company has already begun working on enhancing crop yields by making them drought-tolerant, cold- or heat-tolerant and more efficient utilisers of nitrogen. Also in its pipeline are health-friendly products, including those rich in Omega-3 that reduces the risk of heart attacks.

According to Monsanto Executive Vice-President Jerry Steiner, who was in India recently, some of these new generation gene-altered seeds are at various stages of trials and may be ready for commercialisation in the next few years. Indeed, Monsanto's strength lies in having sequenced the genes of plants like corn (maize) and cotton and developing "markers" (distinctly different and identifiable traits) to facilitate gainful exploitation of the desired genes. The company has managed to put together a large donor gene pool in the past 25 years and has the option to access genes from other sources as well. "From gene discovery to commercialisation of seeds takes about 10 years for Monsanto," Steiner pointed out.

Interestingly, Monsanto has got hold of the genes that enable the plants to withstand drought and has transferred them to corn, cotton and soyabean to enable them to grow with less water. Of course, these genes may not ensure 100 per cent crop survival during a crippling drought but water scarcity of moderate intensity would become immaterial for these crops. In fact, drought-tolerant corn is already under trials in the US. It is claimed to show better performance, having fuller canopy and less wilting than the non-GM crop. Ultimately, such seeds are expected to help stabilise crop yields under rainfed conditions, something that India badly needs. However, though such seeds might be ready for commercial use in the US in the next five to six years, more time might be needed to try them out under Indian conditions.

Monsanto has also identified the genes that boost the plants' capacity to use available nitrogen more efficiently. Such genes have already been put in corn and have shown that the same yields can be had with the application of about a third or even less nitrogen. However, here again, more work is still needed for fine-tuning this technology and understanding how this mechanism really works.

Where altering the nutritional status of farm products is concerned, Monsanto is seeking to augment the Omega-3 content of soyabean to make its oil heart-friendly. Omega-3 is basically a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids which are essential for normal human growth. Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration has endorsed the claim that it can reduce the risk of coronary heart diseases.

Of course, some Omega-3 is available in fruits like kiwi and seabuckthorn (better known as Leh-berry) and products like yogurt and salad-dressings. But its best sources, at present, are shell fish, such as mussels and clams, and oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and others. Since, algae that these fish normally feed on is the main source of Omega-3, the Monsanto scientists have taken the genes from the algae and put them in soyabean. The soya produce from one hectare land is reckoned to have the same amount of Omega-3 as about 22,500 salmon fish. Further experimentation on GM Omega-fortified soyabean is going on.

Indeed, considering the significance of such approaches, it may be prudent for the biotechnologists in the public-funded research systems also to look ahead to the future and search for and gainfully use the desired genes for bigger and better harvests.


With cellulosic ethanol, there is no food vs. fuel debate according to MSU scientist

- Bruce Dale, Michigan State University (press release), http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-03/msu-wce032107.php

As more and more corn grain is diverted to make ethanol, there have been public concerns about food shortages. However, ethanol made from cellulosic materials instead of corn grain, renders the food vs. fuel debate moot, according to research by a Michigan State University ethanol expert.

Bruce Dale, an MSU chemical engineering and materials science professor, has used life cycle analysis tools, which include agricultural data and computer modeling, to study the sustainability of producing biofuels - fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel that are made from renewable resources.

Dale will present his findings today at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in Chicago.

"We grow animal feed, not human food in the United States," Dale said. "We could feed the country's population with 25 million acres of cropland, and we currently have 500 million acres. Most of our agricultural land is being used to grow animal feed. It's a lot simpler to integrate animal feed production into cellulosic ethanol production than it is to integrate human food production. With cellulosic ethanol, the 'food vs. fuel' debate goes away."

Cellulosic ethanol is made from the stems, leaves, stalks and trunks of plants, none of which is used for human food production. Having studied ethanol for more than 30 years, Dale said that as the country moves toward large-scale cellulosic ethanol production, the yield of so-called energy crops - grasses and woody materials grown for their energy content - also will increase dramatically.

"This will reduce pressure on our land resources," said Dale, who also is associate director of the MSU Office of Biobased Technologies. "We'll be able to get more raw material out of one acre of land."

Dale said that many of these energy crops will be grown on land that isn't prime agricultural acreage. In other words, they'll be grown on marginal land that isn't growing a commercial crop right now.

"The evidence indicates that large-scale biofuel production will increase, not decrease, world food supplies by making animal feed production much more efficient," Dale said.


Scientists Pinpoint Proteins That Direct Plant Growth, Development

- Purdue News Service (press release), March 26, 2007, http://newswire.ascribe.org/cgi-bin/behold.pl?ascribeid=20070326.125151&time=13%2047%20PDT&year=2007&public=0

An international team of researchers has discovered that two types of plant proteins are at work in the transport of an important growth hormone, a finding that could have applications in creating plants with specific characteristics.

Previously thought to function independently, the two types of proteins were shown to comprise mechanisms that work both cooperatively and synergistically, depending upon their location in the plant. Together they control the movement of auxin, a hormone that, among other functions, regulates plant architecture, tissue development and flowering time.

The documentation of how these two mechanisms work together has direct applications in designing crops suitable for biofuel and ethanol production or for creating ornamentals with certain desirable traits, like developing more flowers.

"This is a major step in understanding auxin transport, which is vital to every aspect of plant growth and development," said Angus Murphy, the professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Purdue University who led the team.

Murphy said results of the study, published last month in The Plant Cell, have already been applied and have been used to create plants with larger root structures.

"This study gives us another important tool in our toolbox," he said. "Before, we would modify plants one gene at a time, but now we realize why this approach has not worked very well. We now see that there are two elements of control to keep in mind, just as amplified sound is best controlled by modulating gain from the microphone and amplifier output to the speakers."

A first way in which the finding could be directly applied would be in developing crops with more usable biomass for the production of ethanol or other biofuels, which are renewable fuels derived from recently-living organisms like plants. Reengineering the complex cellular machinery of plants to increase biofuel yields requires alterations of their cell walls, which provide plants with much of their strength and rigidity. Altered plant architecture can help compensate for this weakness and enhance the production of tissue most suitable for biofuel feedstocks.

"Scientists will be able to use information from this study to better manipulate plant architecture using a combinatorial approach," Murphy said. "If you want more productive materials for biofuel production, architectural changes will be required to make it work. For example, when plastic body panels were invented for cars, they couldn't just replace the steel. The designers had to change the manner in which the panels were supported and attached to the frame. That is similar to how we have to think about the effects that modifications will have on the plant as a whole."

These transport proteins lie in a plant cell's exterior membrane where they coordinate movement of different substances into and out of the cell. Murphy's team found that the two transport proteins, called PINs and PGPs, work on their own or interactively depending upon the plant tissue involved. Multiple types of each protein also often work together in specific, tissue-dependent ways. In the model plant Arabidopsis, there are eight PIN proteins and 21 PGPs. This provides nearly endless pairings to control the transport of auxin throughout the plants' various tissues, Murphy said.

The research also should have important implications in horticulture. For example, the team's findings might be used to produce ornamentals that do not need pruning or that have larger root systems to support more vegetation, he said. Such plants would require less labor, energy and - with larger roots - less fertilizer, Murphy said.

The team's findings could have applications in food crops, but Murphy said he hasn't pursued such work due to some concerns over eating genetically modified foods.

"We're focusing on biofuels and ornamentals because everybody loves to drive their car, and people don't eat their flowers," he said.

Murphy's research was funded by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council of the United Kingdom. Cooperating educational facilities include the University of Tubingen, Germany; The Basel-Zurich Plant Science Center at the University of Zurich, Switzerland; and the RIKEN Plant Science Center in Kanagawa, Japan. Murphy continues to study auxin transport as well as the role and importance of individual PIN and PGP protein pairings.


Planting Deadline Looms For Roundup Ready Alfalfa

- Rod Swoboda, Wallaces Farmer, March 27, 2007, http://wallacesfarmer.com/index.aspx?ascxid=fpStory&fpsid=27598&fpstid=2

Steve Barnhart, Iowa State University Extension forage agronomist, says a recent court decision halting the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa means farmers have until March 30 to legally plant the biotech seed.

Whether farmers will be allowed to plant RR alfalfa in the future remains to be seen. An April 27 hearing will determine whether the federal injunction becomes permanent. Barnhart explains some of the immediate implications regarding the recent Federal Court ruling on Roundup Ready alfalfa:

* Any RR alfalfa seed purchased by growers in the ordinary course of business on or before March 12, 2007 MUST be planted no later than March 30, 2007.

* If you purchased RR alfalfa seed before March 12, 2007 and it has not yet been delivered, you (the grower) must confirm to the dealer that it will be planted on or before March 30, or it most likely will not be delivered.

* Dealers and growers must hold any RR alfalfa seed not planted by March 30, 2007, until the court confirms its status.

Details on the ruling

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction placing restrictions on the purchase and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed across the United States. The case, brought by the Center for Food Safety and others against the USDA as Geertson Seed Farms Inc. et al. v. Mike Johanns, et al, centers on the USDA's process in approving Roundup Ready alfalfa for non-regulated status.

The case is not focused on the safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The scope of this case is the regulatory procedure used to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa for planting. Primarily whether USDA-APHIS adequately evaluated the impact of the use of the technology and product on the environment (pollen spread and RR resistance in closely related species) and the economic impact on growers of organic forage and non-RR alfalfa seed in adjacent areas.

The March 12, 2007 court order allows for the continued harvest or RR alfalfa already growing, and the use and sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa forage from existing plantings. But it places limits on the purchase and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed for Spring 2007--until further hearings are held.

Under provisions of the order, growers may plant Roundup Ready alfalfa purchased on or before March, 12, 2007 through March 30, 2007. The order also states that growers intending to plant alfalfa after March 30, 2007 must plant non-genetically engineered alfalfa. It states that purchases of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed are prohibited after March 12, pending the court's final decision on April 27 on the status of Roundup Ready alfalfa and the completion of an environmental impact statement by USDA.


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