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Date:

April 20, 2007

Subject:

Genetic Keys to Unlock Bioenergy in Switchgrass; A new biofuel: propane; Shire to lobby for GM cotton crops; Biowatch Heads Back to Court; Nuclear science is feeding the poor; AgBioView 'Lost' Editions Available

 

Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org April 20, 2007

* Genetic Keys to Unlock Bioenergy in Switchgrass
* A new biofuel: propane
* Shire to lobby for GM cotton crops
* Biowatch Heads Back to Court
* Nuclear science is feeding the poor
* AgBioView 'Lost' Editions Available

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Scientists Turn Genetic Keys to Unlock Bioenergy in Switchgrass

- Jan Suszkiw, U.S. Department of Agriculture - ARS, April 20, 2007, http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2007/070420.htm

Using genetic "snapshots" of switchgrass, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and collaborating scientists are gaining new insight into how this warm-season perennial plant could be harnessed as an ethanol resource.

The snapshots are actually fragments of genetic material called messenger RNA (mRNA), and they're like molecular workhorses that do the bidding of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). One key task is delivering instructions to make proteins.

Over the past few years, ARS molecular biologist Gautam Sarath and colleagues have generated tens of thousands of the mRNA snapshots depicting switchgrass from the moment it sprouts from seed to the time it girds itself for winter.

Determining the nucleotide sequences of the mRNA snapshots provides clues as to which genes have been turned on or shut off during such moments, according to Sarath, at the ARS Grain, Forage and Bioenergy Research Unit in Lincoln, Neb.

Since 2003, Sarath, Paul Twigg of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Christian Tobias, a molecular biologist with ARS in Albany, Calif., have determined the sequences of about 12,000 switchgrass gene fragments. At least 12 of them are associated with genes that regulate the production and deposition of lignin, the cementing agent that holds plant cell walls together.

Bioenergy producers are keen on loosening the grip of lignin so that more of the sugars locked within the cells of switchgrass can be fermented into ethanol. Currently, sugars from the starch of grain crops like corn are used. One possible approach is to conventionally breed or genetically engineer new varieties of the grass with a diminished capacity to produce lignin.

To speed the discovery of important genes besides those for lignin production, the ARS scientists submit the genetic fragments they amass to the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif. There, scientists employ state-of-the-art sequencers so that the fragments' identities and function can be more quickly determined through comparisons to the genomes of corn, rice and other grasses.

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A new biofuel: propane

- Katherine Bourzac, Technology Review (MIT), April 19, 2007, http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/18551/

MIT researchers say they have developed an efficient chemical process for making propane from corn or sugarcane. They are incorporating a startup this week to commercialize the biopropane process, which they hope will find a place in the existing $21 billion U.S. market for the fuel.

While much of the attention on biofuels has focused on ethanol, the process developed by the MIT researchers produces propane, says Andrew Peterson, one of the graduate students who demonstrated the reactions. Propane is used in the United States for residential heating and some industrial processes, and to a limited extent as a liquid transportation fuel. "We're making a demonstrated fuel" for which a market and an infrastructure already exist, says Peterson, who works in the lab of chemical-engineering professor Jefferson Tester and has founded the startup C3 BioEnergy, based in Cambridge, MA, to commercialize the technology.

Propane, which is currently made from petroleum, has a higher energy density than ethanol, and although it is often used in its gaseous form, it's the cleanest-burning liquid fuel.

The C3 BioEnergy process depends on supercritical water--water at a very high temperature and pressure--which facilitates the reactions that turn a biological compound into propane. Peterson wouldn't reveal the starting compound, but he says that it is a product of the fermentation of the sugars found in corn or sugarcane. The reaction is driven by heat, requiring no catalysts. At supercritical temperature and pressure, Peterson says, "water does bizarre things. It becomes like a nonpolar solvent" and mixes with the organic compounds. Once the reaction has taken place, the solution is kept under high pressure and cooled to room temperature so that the propane comes out of the solution and floats to the top. "We've demonstrated that we can make propane," says Peterson. "Now we're trying to optimize the reaction rate and get it to a scalable stage."

Peterson says the biopropane conversion has a good energy balance: not much fossil fuel needs to be burned during production. The reaction does not require the input of a large amount of energy because the heat that's key to the biopropane conversion is recoverable using a heat exchanger, a device that transfers heat in and out of a fluid.

"All biofuel reactions involve removing oxygen from the starting compound," says George Huber, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. There are a number of strategies for doing this, including reactions that rely on biological catalysts. But, says Huber, "supercritical fluids are a very promising way to make biofuels. You can do it in a very small reactor in a very short time, so you can do it very economically."

Other academic labs are developing processes that use high-temperature, high-pressure fluids to make biofuels. Douglas Elliott, at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, WA, is using near-supercritical conditions in combination with a catalyst to treat wastewater and unprocessed biomass. Under these conditions, organic compounds can be made into a mixture of methane (the main component in natural gas) and carbon dioxide. "We've gone all the way from small-batch reactors to treating a few gallons of wastewater per hour," says Elliott, who is working with a company on commercializing the technology for water treatment. "We're still in the lab with biomass."

Huber and Elliott say the MIT biopropane process is novel. "I've never seen anyone make propane with supercritical fluids," says Huber.

In some countries, including Australia, propane is more widely used as a transportation fuel. In the United States, "you would have to modify engines to use it," says Huber. "Biopropane could be used where we already use propane."

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Shire to lobby for GM cotton crops in the Kimberley

- ABC News (Australia), April 20, 2007, http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200704/s1902331.htm

The push to allow genetically modified (GM) cotton to be grown in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia has been formally supported by the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley.

A staff recommendation to lobby the State Government to allow GM cotton to be grown in the region was passed unanimously at this week's council meeting.

The State Government has a moratorium on commercial GM crops until 2008.

The state Agriculture Minister Kim Chance says the ban will not be lifted until he is confident GM crops do not pose health risks.

Shire president Michele Pucci says GM cotton should be exempt because it is not a foodstuff and will provide benefits including increased employment.

"Obviously the state has its reasons why they have the moratorium on GM crops but what we're requesting is that they have a look at GM cotton which will not be used for food," he said.

"This isn't about all GM crops, this isn't about a food GM crop, this is about cotton."

A spokeswoman for the Minister says a discussion paper analysing GM cotton research trials in the Ord Valley will be released shortly.

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Biowatch Heads Back to Court Over Monsanto

- John Yeld, Cape Argus (Cape Town), April 19, 2007, http://allafrica.com/stories/200704190442.html

Environmental groups around the country will have their eyes fixed firmly on a full bench in the Pretoria High Court on Monday when it hears an appeal that could have a significant influence on how they operate in the future.

The court is to hear an appeal by Biowatch South Africa - a lobby group opposed to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into local agriculture and the environment - against a court order that it pay the legal costs of the South African component of transnational seed and chemical giant Monsanto.

The costs order, which raised legal eyebrows, was made against Biowatch during its successful application for a high court order compelling the Department of Agriculture to provide access to information that would shed light on the basis for the department's decisions about permitting GMO crops in South Africa.

Monsanto South Africa (Pty) Ltd joined these court proceedings to op-pose the application, arguing that it had to protect confidential information.

But Biowatch maintained that it did not require the release of any information protected in law as confidential.

In February 2005, Acting Judge Eric Dunn ordered that Biowatch be granted access to almost all the information it had requested.

He reaffirmed that the environmental group had a constitutional right to this information, that access to the information was in the public interest and that Biowatch had been compelled to apply to the court to exercise this right.

The judge also said that granting access to this information was a ne-cessary part of the proper administration of the Genetically Modified Organisms Act.

Instead of applying the general legal principle that costs should follow the outcome of litigation, Acting Judge Dunn ordered Biowatch South Africa to pay the legal costs of Monsanto South Africa (Pty) Ltd.

If the costs order stands, the environmental group could effectively be bankrupted, and similar groups would be wary of going to court in future, even if they believe they have a watertight case to argue.

Biowatch said it was appealing the costs order partly because no order had been made for payment of its legal costs, although it had been successful in its application.

In addition, the court had found that it had been compelled to apply to it for access to the information to which it was entitled.

"(Also), the costs order could have a deterrent effect on future public interest litigation because it creates the impression that if any part of a request for information is found to be insufficiently specific, even a successful litigant may be heavily penalised."

The Legal Resources Centre is actng on Biowatch's behalf in the appeal.

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How hi-tech nuclear science is feeding the poor

- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Web Posted March 19, 2007, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/focus/2007/1000511/index.html

The hi-tech and often baffling field of nuclear technology may seem a world away from the poorest developing world farmers and families struggling to make a dollar a day.

Yet nuclear methods applied to agriculture are enabling millions of these farmers to grow more crops and rear healthier livestock. Since most of the world's 854 million hungry people live in rural areas where agriculture is the main livelihood, such technology can have a direct impact on poverty and hunger.

In addition, despite public concern over nuclear technology, such methods have passed rigorous safety checks - in fact they increase the safety of food while benefiting the environment.

Since 1964, FAO and the International Atomic Energy Agency have harnessed such technology to help promote food security, through the Vienna-based Joint FAO/IAEA Programme.

"Nuclear technology defies the senses; people cannot touch, smell or feel the material, and this often evokes a fear of such methods," says Gabriele Voigt, Director of the Agency's Laboratories at Seibersdorf, outside Vienna, a nerve-centre of research and training.

"The irony is that such technology can make food safer and benefit the environment, while ensuring the hungriest are fed. We're opening a magic door and the positive impacts are clear."

Creating better crops

For example, scientists use a method called irradiation to create crop varieties that are more disease-resistant and grow better in poor soils, a massive benefit to countries across drought-prone Africa, where the poorest farmers try to survive on the most marginal lands.

Food also can be made safer through irradiation, which destroys bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella in foods, while leaving no radioactive traces. The safety and effectiveness of this method has been declared by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international standards body administered by FAO and the World Health Organization, which comprises government-designated experts.

Irradiation as a post-harvest treatment for horticultural products also benefits the environment - it provides a safer alternative to methyl bromide, which the large majority of countries have agreed to phase out by 2010 due to its harmful impact on the ozone layer.

Nuclear techniques can also be used to detect excessive pesticide or veterinary drug residues in food and monitor implementation of good agricultural and veterinary practices.

There are numerous other areas where nuclear technology helps the environment. For example, one technique suppresses, or in some situations even eradicates, insect pests by the systematic release of sterilized males of the species - a type of birth control. This reduces the need for chemical pesticides that can harm other organisms and soils. Another example involves a nuclear technique that measures water storage and tracks water and nutrients in soil, reducing wastage of these valuable commodities.

Two agencies better than one

Qu Liang, Director of the Joint Programme, says: "This is one of the best examples of effective cooperation between two UN agencies, with a direct combination of agricultural expertise and nuclear science.

"In its simplest terms, FAO can provide practical information from the field, for example reporting the effects of soil erosion on crops and ultimately the local people, and the IAEA can apply the scientific expertise on how we might address it."

The Joint FAO/IAEA Programme works with member countries in researching and introducing new crop varieties, pest treatments or food-testing methods among other things.

It also trains scientists from developing countries each year at its lab at Seibersdorf, near Vienna, who then return to their countries to put appropriate nuclear methods into practice.

Mr Liang adds: "We investigate, give advice, guidance and training to international scientists, and help coordinate early efforts to implement work. But it is for countries to take up these projects and maintain them well into the future.

"We can generate a lot of interest and political will by showing the potential economic benefits, which helps persuade governments to invest in it."

Vienna, Austria - March 2007

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AgBioView 'Lost' Editions Available

Because of a temporary glitch on the server hosting the AgBioView website, two editions of AgBioView were not sent to subscribers. However, they were successfully archived on the website and can be read online at http://www.agbioworld.org/newsletter_wm/index.php?caseid=archive

Here are the headlines of those editions:

April 18, 2007

* The 'Golden Potato': a new source of beta-carotene
* 'Bt cotton not caused any negative impact on safety'
* State envisions Biotech policy
* 'Only intensive farming' will feed Britain
* 47pc would grow GM forage crops
* Approval sought to field test brassicas
* GM trial sows hope for farmers
* USAID Director Sees Nothing Wrong With Biotech
* GM Crops Could Save World Of Food Woes
* Equine Cloning to be Discussed
* Argentine cow clones to produce insulin
* Cattle gene expression altered by chromium
* Lithuanian government disapproves second field trial application
* An Exercise in "Teaching" Biotech Controversy
* GMO Safety turns five
* An unhealthy obsession

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April 19, 2007

* Agricultural Productivity in the U.S.
* Comparison of GM and non-GM Forage and Grain Composition
* Monsanto developing drought-tolerant seeds
* Scientists unveil Australia's first cloned beef cow
* Meat, milk from cloned cattle safe
* EU experts fail to agree approval of GMO beet
* Organics: A Poor Harvest for Wal-Mart
* A High School Student Reports on GM Food Issue in Japan

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