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March 29, 2007


Kim Chance wrong on GM food safety concerns; Does opposition to GM crops hurt the poor?; Marked increase of GM plantings in France; Structure revealed of gateways to gene control


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org March 29, 2007

* Kim Chance wrong on GM food safety concerns
* Does opposition to GM crops hurt the poor?
* Marked increase of GM plantings in France
* Structure revealed of gateways to gene control


WA Ag Minister Kim Chance wrong on GM food safety concerns

- Ian B. Edwards via GMOPundit, March 29, 2007, http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/

On March 22nd Western Australia's Agriculture Minister Kim Chance issued a media release claiming that a "new GM study food study reveals new safety fears". He went on to conclude that "Until we know more about GM crops, especially GM food crops, I believe that it is wise to continue the moratorium". He went further by attacking our national regulatory authority, Food Standards Australia - New Zealand (FSANZ) saying: "FSANZ should stop relying on the data supplied by the GM companies and conduct their own independent feeding trials and stringent analysis of the GM products that are proposed for Australia and New Zealand".

The study in question was not new, but a re-analysis of existing data submitted to the regulatory authorities, conducted by researchers at the Universities of Caen and Rouen in France. The lead researcher, Gilles-Eric Seralini states on his website that he was one of the first to warn public opinion about the dangers of GMO's, and in an interview (also published on his website) he likens the falsely alleged deaths from GM food to Mad Cow Disease; he erroneously claims that GM crops are only suited to "Western Countries" and are not adapted to "poor countries"; and he claims that in research on GM animals the latter are being "genetically doped" on hormones so that they will grow fat thanks to artificial genes! He finally goes on to say that "southern populations" are missing patented medicines and they are being starved over the long run.

How did the study come about? Monsanto released a product called "Mon 863 YieldGuard" maize with resistance to rootworm. The product received full regulatory clearance and has been grown in the US and Canada since 2003. The data Monsanto submitted to the regulatory authorities was provided by an external company and the protocols and statistical methodology were reviewed by hundreds of scientists in a number of countries. The product was approved for food importation in Australia/ New Zealand, Mexico, The Philippines, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Russia. Regulatory groups such as FSANZ; The European Food Standards Authority (EFSA); The French Food Safety Agency and the Robert Koch Institute all found that Mon 863 does not pose any nutritional risk.

Seralini and his colleagues used a statistical procedure that qualified statisticians believe to be faulty. They analysed 494 independent measurements made on rats fed for 90 days on a diet of either 11% or 33% GM maize. Dr Chris Preston of the University of Adelaide has drawn attention to the fact that the procedure (more specifically the test for significance) was such that even with 100 comparisons the chances of getting a false positive result was close to 1. The 33 positive (or adverse) results the authors obtained in this re-analysis at the 5% probability level, and the 4 positives at the 1% probability level, very closely mirrored what you would expect by chance (25 and 5 respectively). Quite aside from the statistical procedure used it was found that the adverse toxicology results that they reported occurred only when 11% GM maize was fed - they did not occur when 33% maize was fed. This lack of a dose response alone should have alerted them to the fact that their procedure might be wrong, but it did not stop them publishing without explaining the anomalies! Their publication also contained four totally incorrect statements that have since been addressed by several groups. What is quite extraordinary is that these anomalies were not picked up by the reviewers of their paper.

When the study was going to press both FSANZ and the European counterpart, EFSA, said that they would take a careful look at the methodology used. When faced with several questions in Parliament and from the media, Kim Chance has recently claimed that he has a Ministerial GMO Reference Group that are providing him with advice on GM matters. Did he convey his concerns to either FSANZ or to his reference group? Absolutely not! Instead he chose to undermine public confidence in our national regulatory system, FSANZ by going public right away. It should be noted that Western Australia is a party to the inter-governmental agreement on Gene Technology Regulation and is represented on the Gene Technology Ministerial Council. As a member, this would have been the appropriate forum for Mr. Chance to voice his concerns.

The paper in question has only just been published, but ahead of publication it was released to Greenpeace and appeared as two briefings on their website entitled: 1) "Regulatory Systems for GE Crops a failure: the case of Mon 863"; and "Mon 863 Corn: A case study in incompetence". So where did Mr. Chance get his information? We do not propose to speculate, but our readers may draw their own conclusions. The Minister may also be trying to justify his "go it alone" policy in which he commissioned Dr Judy Carmen at the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in Adelaide to conduct a so-called independent feeding study. Dr Carmen has refused several requests from industry to make the protocol available, but she is well known for an antagonistic and hyper-critical approach to FSANZ. The process of having states getting involved in what is a Federal jurisdiction could lead to chaos in our industry if each were to set up their own independent regulatory system! Attention was drawn to this last year by a number of eminent scientists worldwide in a letter to Minister Chance.

In summary, there are several problems with Kim Chance's approach to food safety. When he intimates that companies submit data that is not independent (read biased) in order to gain regulatory approval he is treading on some very dangerous legal grounds. The penalties for any false information submitted to a regulator are draconian, and most companies get outside specialists to provide at least some of the specialized studies required for regulatory clearance. By attacking FSANZ he is undermining public confidence in our regulatory system (widely regarded as one of the most rigorous in the world). By issuing a press release on this highly questionable study without getting verification from other sources he is not being well advised. Finally, as he continues to delay the production of GM crops in Western Australia he is ignoring the majority opinion of our leading farm groups, and he continues to deny growers the right to choose the technology they wish to use on their farms.

Dr Ian B. Edwards
Chairman - AgBio Advisory Group


Does opposition to GM crops hurt the poor?

- Ruth Gidley, Reuters AlertNet, March 29, 2007, http://www.alertnet.org/db/blogs/1264/2007/02/29-105825-1.htm

People tend to have strong views on genetically modified crops. It's usually a fairly wide divide between the "GM can solve world hunger" camp and the line that "GM could be dangerous and agricultural corporations like Monsanto are evil".

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, who used to oversee the U.N. Human Development Reports, is somewhere in the middle. She argues that GM technology so far hasn't done much to help the poor, but it could. She says European campaigners against biotechnology are part of the problem.

Her view is that heavy opposition from non-governmental organisations has demonised the technology so much that it's stopped the public sector researching GM crops. As a result, commercial outfits like Monsanto have taken centre stage and developed technology that's profit-friendly rather than beneficial to the poor.

"It's rather perverse that (lobbying by) the anti-globalisation movement results in what they want to stop," she said at a debate in London this week.

Fukuda-Parr, who's now a visiting professor at The New School in New York City, says GM research has focused on four crops - maize, soya, cotton and canola, which is genetically engineered rapeseed produced for its oil. Most of the maize and soya goes to feeding livestock to meet the soaring demand for meat in the booming economies of India and China.

So while a lot of GM research is catering to the appetites of rapidly expanding middle classes, it still does not benefit the world's poor. For that to happen, Fukuda-Parr says GM technology needs to focus on staple foods in developing countries such as rice, wheat, cassava, plaintains and sorghum. Plants could then be created with traits that make farming less risky, like tolerance to drought and resistance to disease.

"But that's not what companies are investing in, it's not where the money is," she says, adding the same thing happens with medical research. "It's just like pharmaceuticals, with 90 percent (of research funding) going to diseases of the rich, and very little to malaria..."

That's a fairly radical line, but then Fakuda-Parr says she's not actually against GM technology at all. "I am opposed to corporations controlling this technology," she says, for the record.

But, she says: "Sitting in Britain or continental Europe, the attitude has been to stigmatise GM and you throw out the baby with the bath water."

According to the book that Fukuda-Parr has just edited, "The Gene Revolution: GM crops and unequal development", there are just seven mega-corporations operating in the GM market, skewing research towards commercial priorities.

Fukuda-Parr's book looks at how GM technology has been handled differently in Argentina, Brazil, China, India, South Africa and United States - the leading players in the GM game. And it looks at how biotechnology could be useful for West and Central Africa.

Her main argument is that national governments in developing countries need to create incentives for supplying small-scale farmers with quality seeds and encourage locally relevant research.

Michael Lipton of Sussex University goes even further than Fukuda-Parr, saying the presence of NGOs - often with a strong anti-GM stance - in Sub-Saharan Africa makes it very difficult for Africans to embark on research in their own countries.

"Some NGOs have bandwaggoned on this...in a shameful way," he says.

He disagrees with the argument - based on calculations of labour demand per hectare - that says GM crops with built-in pesticides will leave people out of work because they cut the labour needed for weeding. Any job losses, he says, are outweighed by the extra hands needed during the bumper harvests that GM crops create.

Lipton doesn't think there's any scientific basis for a European moratorium on GM research, which the World Trade Organisation has declared illegal.

"There's no reason to believe they are any more or less dangerous than the crops they are to replace," he says.

But anti-GM campaigners say it's simplistic to argue that biotechnology could end hunger in the developing world.

"Small-scale farmers in poor countries aren't currently asking for genetically modified seeds," says Lies Craeynest, international development advisor at environmental organisation WWF, which is cautious about the positive impacts of GM technology. "What they really want is access to land and credit."

British relief and development agency http://www.christianaid.org.uk/indepth/412gmfood/index.htm Christian Aid, which has campaigned heavily on the topic, says: "A costly technology such as GM crops, owned by powerful corporations, risks increasing...barriers, leading to more inequality, poverty and food insecurity."

Even the debate about higher crop yields isn't straightforward. On the one hand, scientists say studies show small-scale farmers benefit proportionally more from GM crop production than large-scale farmers. But some anti-GM campaigners say that bigger harvests can also lead to lower prices which reduce the income that farmers receive from their crop.

One of the biggest arguments against GM technology is distrust of corporations controlling the supply of seeds. And anti-GM campaigners say there are not enough safeguards against the unintentional spread of GM crops. Development research publication id21 summarised the pros and cons in a 2004 issue that's still remarkably relevant.

Fukuda-Parr says it's too late to reign in technology that people want. She says India and Brazil were both forced to legalise GM crops after they'd already been brought in in so-called "white bags" and introduced locally.

"I don't think you can stop it now," she says. "It's out there and we just have to try to manage it."


Marked increase of GM plantings in France

- GMO Compass, March 28, 2007, http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/news/messages/200703.docu.html#105

French farmers will cultivate significantly more genetically modified plants in 2007. Referring to statements by a spokesperson of the French maize growers' association, AGPM, Reuters reports that between 30,000 and 50,000 hectares of Bt-Maize MON810 will be cultivated in the upcoming season. In the previous year, only 5,000 hectares of GM plants were found on French fields. MON810 is the only GM plant approved in France for commercial cultivation.

Exact data are not available, as the registration of GM cultivation sites is not mandatory - a consequence of the fear that the fields may be destroyed by anti-GMO groups. However, concerning the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, France has issued a new regulation which also includes a national site register. The resolution also declared isolation distances of 50 metres between GM plants and conventional fields a requirement for the cultivation of genetically modified plants.

The Bt-maize MON810 incorporates resistance against the corn borer. By now, 47 different plants are in the EU catalogue of varieties, all of which are derived from MON810.


Scientists reveal structure of gateways to gene control

- Penn State University (press release), March 28, 2007, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-03/ps-srs032307.php

Scientists at Penn State University will reveal in the 29 March 2007 issue of the journal Nature the first complete high-resolution map of important structures that control how genes are packaged and regulated throughout an entire genome. "For the first time, we are seeing in very high resolution on a genome-wide scale how nucleosomes control the expression of an organism's genes," said B. Franklin Pugh, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the study's lead investigator.

The map pinpoints the locations of certain key gene-controlling nucleosomes -- spool-like structures that wrap short regions of DNA around a protein core. The research suggests how these nucleosomes, positioned at important transcription-promoter sites throughout the cell's DNA, control whether or not a gene's function can be turned on in a particular cell.

The study's many surprising findings together reveal an intimate relationship between the architecture of nucleosome structures and the underlying DNA sequences they regulate. "We now know exactly where these nucleosomes are positioned on the DNA molecule and which DNA building blocks they have wrapped up under their tight control," Pugh said. Among those building blocks, Pugh and his colleagues revealed the architecture of a critical gateway, controlled by the nucleosome, which must be unlocked before a gene can be transcribed.

The study revealed that almost all genes have the same kind of structure where transcription begins, that this beginning contains a critical gateway for transcription, and that the transcription gateway of each gene almost always is located at the same place on a nucleosome. The researchers also discovered some genes whose pattern is somewhat different from this norm, and these unusual sequences also are reported in the Nature paper. "We previously had a low-resolution idea that these structures all could be roughly in the same position, but now this high-resolution map makes it very clear that they really are in exactly the same position. It's a remarkably consistent arrangement," Pugh said.

The study also revealed that the nucleosomes at the transcription-promoter control centers occupy several overlapping positions on the DNA molecule, typically 10 base pairs apart, which exactly matches the periodic rotation of the DNA double helix. "It is striking how well these positions match with the architecture of the DNA as it wraps around the nucleosome's protein core," Pugh said.

This result powerfully simplifies previous theories about the possible architecture of gene packaging. "There is a certain DNA sequence that shapes the gene's architecture in the same way, producing the same structure in every gene," Pugh said. The overall sequence of DNA building blocks is different in each gene, but the underlying architecture is the same."

To obtain their high-resolution map, the researchers first isolated 322,000 nucleosomes from the 6,000 regions that control gene transcription in the DNA of baker's yeast, S.cerevisiae, an organism widely studied as a model of how human cells work. These promoter nucleosomes are the only ones in the yeast DNA that contain in their core a histone protein called H2A.Z. Led by Pugh and Stephan Schuster, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, the Penn State research team then used antibodies that bind only to this H2A.Z protein as a tool for separating all these promoter nucleosomes from the other parts of the yeast's DNA. Next, the team used a state-of-the-art DNA-sequencing machine to identify, or "read," the sequence of base-pair building blocks along the DNA of each of the H2A.Z nucleosomes. The scientists then pinpointed the original location of the H2A.Z nucleosomes by matching the sequence of each one with the identical sequence on the previously published yeast genome. "Obtaining the exact DNA sequences for all these nucleosomes allows us to precisely map their positions across the entire genome," explains Schuster. The map reveals, for the first time, precisely which DNA sequences are part of the control-center's H2A.Z nucleosome for each gene in the yeast genome. Also for the first time, researchers now have a clear picture of how H2A.Z nucleosomes help to control whether or not a gene can be turned on.

Another discovery is that transcription-control centers tend to be located on the outside edge of the nucleosome and tend to face outward on the DNA helix, allowing the cell's transcription proteins to find them more easily. "This arrangement makes sense, because when signaling proteins arrive at a control center they are well situated to help push the nucleosome out of the way so the reading of the gene can begin," Pugh said.

"Previous research had indicated that DNA sequences located upstream of a gene might be a region that controls whether that gene is read or not, but we did not know the architecture of those sequences -- whether they were exposed and therefore ready for work. Now we know that the gateway to transcription is a part of this control region and that the nucleosome keeps it locked so the gene cannot be turned on until it is needed," Pugh said. When the gene is needed, the cell's molecular machinery loosens the DNA wrapping around the nucleosome, unlocking the transcription gateway to give access to the cell's molecular transcription machinery. "We think that the function of the nucleosome is to control the gateway to transcription," Pugh said.

The research reveals how the pieces of DNA that regulate genes at the transcription-promoter sites are packaged on nucleosomes. The knowledge that these sites are located on the outside edge of the nucleosome spool will help to focus research designed to manipulate gene expression. "Our study has provided a much clearer picture of the architecture of the DNA in the control regions, allowing us to understand much better how genes are regulated, which is important because gene regulation is a critical process for the survival of living things," Pugh explains.

The paper by Pugh's team marks the leading edge of a new wave of anticipated discoveries about gene regulation, made possible by recently developed laboratory equipment for high-volume, or massively parallel, DNA sequencing. "Traditional DNA sequencing methods processed one DNA strand at a time, but now we can sequence hundreds of thousands of DNA strands at once, rapidly learning incredible amounts of new information," Pugh said.

The knowledge that most genes are packaged basically the same way is powerful information with implications for future research and potential applications. "One implication that I think is important is that we now have a better idea about how packaging the DNA in nucleosomes controls the expression of a gene," Pugh said. "We don't yet know where all the important gene-regulation features are located on the DNA molecule, but now we know we should start looking for some of them on the edges of nucleosomes," Pugh said. "We might even discover some sites that regulate genes that we didn't even know existed."


A high-resolution image is on the Web at http://www.science.psu.edu/alert/Pugh3-2007.htm


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