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Date:

April 24, 2007

Subject:

U of S pulls new barley variety over regulations; EU may take two years to develop biotech crop rules; Secret of what makes plants flower; Genes that switch self-pollination on and off; Can a Taste for Poison Drive Speciation?; Spray to quell E. coli; Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons; GM protesters vainly toil in soil; NABC 19: Agricultural Biofuels; US EPA to review regulation of Plant-Incorporated Protectants

 

Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org April 24, 2007

* U of S pulls new barley variety over regulations
* EU may take two years to develop biotech crop rules
* Secret of what makes plants flower
* Genes that switch self-pollination on and off
* Can a Taste for Poison Drive Speciation?
* Spray to quell E. coli
* Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons
* GM protesters vainly toil in soil
* NABC 19: Agricultural Biofuels
* US EPA to review regulation of Plant-Incorporated Protectants

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U of S pulls new barley variety over regulations

- Murray Lyons, The StarPhoenix, April 24, 2007, http://www.canada.com/saskatoonstarphoenix/news/business/story.html?id=fc18fb4e-4628-4620-9bf1-9dfb3e69226f

One of Canada's most respected plant breeders says the federal regulatory process is stifling a University of Saskatchewan effort to register a new variety of hulless barley.

The U of S cannot afford to continue navigating Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations and has dropped plans to register the variety.

Brian Rossnagel, a barley and oat breeder at the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at U of S, called a meeting Monday of other plant researchers and people working in the feed and livestock industries to explain why the low phytate, hulless barley variety developed by CDC should not have to be subjected to CFIA's process for regulating feeds with novel traits.

The university and CDC researchers got so frustrated with the regulatory process that they decided this winter they will not seek approval of the low phytate barley, currently identified only as HB379, as long as CFIA insists upon regulating it under the heading of "novel feed."

Rossnagel says the irony is competitors to Canada in producing feed could soon have their own low phytate hulless varieties developed at the University of Idaho.

These varieties are being fast-tracked by U.S. regulators who don't consider low phytate levels to be a novel trait.

The Saskatchewan registered seed company, Farm Pure Seeds, was set to grow out the variety to commercial quantities under the name CDC Lophy-1, but that commercial opportunity has now been halted.

Phytate is a phosphorus enzyme found in almost every plant grown. The enzyme is a form of phosphorus not easily absorbed by livestock with just one stomach. Hog and poultry producers have to add another enzyme to break down the phytate in feed barley as well as add more phosphate to the diet as a feed supplement.

The end result is much of the phosphate nutrient is not absorbed by the animal.

Management of manure is a big issue for intensive livestock operations, and research has suggested the high level of phosphate in Lake Winnipeg, for example, can be partially linked to Manitoba's intensive hog industry, Rossnagel explained.

The CDC variety has about one-third of the phytate of normal barley, which means there is three times the free available phosphate within the barley that can then be absorbed by the animal, Rossnagel said.

In tests, feeding HB379 to hogs resulted in the hog manure with 20 to 45 per cent lower phosphate levels.

CDC was told last July by CFIA's feed regulatory division of the agency's insistence on regulating the variety under the heading of "novel feed." The university has been trying since then to get regulators to change their mind about that designation.

Rossnagel says the word "novel," used by a regulator, means genetically modified organism (GMO) to Canada's overseas agriculture customers.

"This will kill the export potential as the novel feed moniker will be interpreted everywhere else in the world as a GMO," the barley researcher said. "That would lock it out of most of the markets we would be seeking to go into."

The main reason Rossnagel is so unhappy that HB379 has been put under a heading of "novel feed" is that the new variety was not created through gene splicing, but developed through an accelerated program of plant breeding, using tools that plant breeders have used for 200 years.

He says the CDC used rapid back-crossing techniques and sent samples of its early work on the variety to New Zealand to grow it out during Saskatchewan winters.

As a result, the variety was developed in less than six years, about half the normal time for a traditional breeding program.

"Plant breeding is all about change. It's the whole purpose of what we do," Rossnagel said. "We try to improve. We try to add disease resistance. We try to alter quality features and meet niche market possibilities."

Glyn Chancey, director of the plant production division for CFIA, went to Rossnagel's meeting Monday as an observer, but found himself explaining the federal agency's processes and how it has been seeking input from many researchers across Canada this winter on how its regulatory process should be streamlined.

Chancey says he can't speak for the feed division of CFIA, but said he disagreed with Rossnagel that the process to get HB379 registered would be as onerous as the U of S researcher made it out to be.

"There are not really any significant impediments to the registration of this variety that a constructive engagement between Brian and the CDC and our feed section couldn't resolve in short order," Chancey said.

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EU may take two years to develop biotech crop rules

- Budapest Business Journal, April 24, 2007, http://www.bbj.hu/news/news_25624.html

Europe's farmers will not see any more clarity on EU rules for separating traditional, organic and biotech crops until at least 2009 as experts sift through scientific data on specific plant varieties, officials say.

The European Commission, the EU executive, issued guidelines in July 2003 on how farmers should separate the three types. The idea was for national governments to make their own laws to facilitate growing of genetically modified (GMO) crops if farmers wanted to do so. At the moment, maize is the only GMO crop that is grown on the territory of the EU-27. The guidelines are not legally binding and most countries have been very slow to draft and adopt laws on an area known in EU jargon as co-existence. Some have not bothered at all.

Commission officials say only seven EU countries have co-existence laws in place: Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and several regions in Austria. A further eight countries have notified their plans. Many of these countries have still to develop crop-specific 'good farming' practices, such as field isolation distances and crop-cleaning procedures. Very few have specific rules on economic liability in cases of cross-contamination, they say.

For some years, the Commission has come under pressure from several countries to draft an EU-wide coexistence law. Early last year, it disappointed many by saying this was unnecessary. But it did pledge to compile far more specific growing guidelines for farmers. It doesn't look as if that will happen soon, work is not due to start in earnest until the H2 of 2007 and then, maybe, take up to two years. "Now we need some practical and technical elements for the only crop that is allowed for cultivation in the Community," said Daniele Bianchi, responsible for GMO policy in the cabinet of EU Agriculture Commission Mariann Fischer Boel.

"It will take more than 1.5 or two years to come to some kind of guidelines or conclusions on this issue," he told a conference last week. While there is no plan to revise the general non-binding 2003 guidelines, the latest project envisages more technical detail on crop segregation, a senior Commission official said. If EU countries did not intend to develop national crop laws, the Commission guidelines could be a basis for "voluntary standards" for good farming practice, a tacit admission that no country would be forced to adopt a coexistence law, he said.

Last jigsaw pieces: Another longstanding problem in EU biotech policy is the lack of common labeling thresholds for seeds, or how much biotech material can be tolerated in seed batches. The debate over the EU's last major GMO law has been simmering for at least four years and has been so controversial that the Commission, usually united on GMO policy, cannot agree. Thresholds would be set so that the labeling threshold for final food and feed products at the end of the production chain, which the EU has set at 0.9%, can be respected. What is at stake are the percentages of GMO content that can reasonably be allowed in crops like maize and rapeseed before the seeds must be labeled as biotech.

Any seed batches with GMO material below those thresholds would not have to be labeled. None of this means that the EU is about to approve more GMO types for cultivation since 'live' GMOs remain a highly divisive and controversial area for both the Commission and the EU-27. Still, coexistence laws and seed thresholds are widely seen as the last pieces of the jigsaw in the EU's plethora of GMO laws. Some EU states say it is essential to have at least seed thresholds in place before new 'live' GMOs can be contemplated.

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Scientists unlock secret of what makes plants flower

- Imperial College London (news release), April 18, 2007, http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_18-4-2007-16-41-12?newsid=10174

A protein acting as a long-distance signal from leaf to shoot-tip tells plants when to flower, says new research published in Science Express on Thursday 19 April 2007.

The study reveals the likely mechanism by which the Arabidopsis plant flowers in response to changes in day length. Earlier research had shown that plants' leaves perceived seasonal changes in day length, which triggers a long-distance signal to travel through the plant's vascular system from the leaf to the shoot apex, where flowering is induced. However, the identity of the long-distance signal remained unclear.

This new research, carried out by scientists at Imperial College London and the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne, has led to the proposal that this signal is a protein known as Flowering Locus T Protein (FT protein), which is produced in leaves by the Flowering Locus T gene (FT gene). It travels through the plant's vascular system to the shoot apex, where it activates other genes, causing the plant to flower. The research team were able to track the progress of the protein through the plant by tagging it with a green fluorescent protein originally isolated from jellyfish, allowing it to be detected in living tissues using highly sensitive microscope systems.

The team then grafted two plants together, only one of which contained the gene for the fluorescent version of FT. This allowed them to show conclusively that FT protein moved from where it was produced in the leaves of one plant, across into the other plant.

The FT protein is produced when the FT gene is switched on by another gene known as CONSTANS. This is a key gene expressed in leaves which reacts to changes in day length.

Dr Colin Turnbull New Window from Imperial College London's Division of Biology, who carried out the research, said: "This could be a really important breakthrough in plant science. Since the 1930s when it first became clear that something was communicating the perception of changes in day length in leaves to the shoot apex, and causing flowering, scientists have been trying to work out exactly how this mechanism works.

"Over the past couple of years several labs made exciting discoveries all pointing to the FT gene being central to controlling flowering time. Now that we have been able to track FT protein moving from its source in leaves to its destination in the shoot tip, we have a plausible explanation for how plants respond to day length. Parallel work in Japan shows very similar mechanisms operating in rice, so there is immediate potential to translate research into practical benefits for food crops. The ability to control flowering is of enormous commercial significance across food and non-food species, for example extending production seasons or designing plants better adapted to changing climate."

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Cornell researchers zero in on genes that turn a plant's ability to self-pollinate on and off -- a potential boon for hybrids

- Cornell University (press release via SeedQuest), April 20, 2007, http://www.seedquest.com/News/releases/2007/april/19040.htm

Some plants need a partner to reproduce. Pollen from one plant pollinates the stigma of another, and a seed is formed. But other plants can self-pollinate, a handy survival mechanism for a lonely plant.

The ability to self-pollinate turns up in cultivated tomatoes and canola, among other important crops, and sometimes it can be a nuisance for plant breeders and seed producers who want to develop highly desirable hybrid varieties and produce hybrid seed on a commercial scale. To get hybrid seed, they plant two different varieties in the same field to allow them to cross-pollinate. But if one or both varieties can self-pollinate, workers must remove the pollen sacs (anthers) from the flowers by hand to prevent "selfing."

This is so labor-intensive that it is usually only done in countries where labor is cheap.

Now Cornell University researchers are zeroing in on genes that turn a plant's ability to self-pollinate on and off. Their work is described in the May 1 issue of the journal Current Biology and in the journal's online edition.

"The long-term goal is to understand how self-pollination is inhibited in self-incompatible plants, which are unable to self-pollinate because their stigmas can recognize and reject their own pollen. Then you could transfer this ability to any plant and use it to make hybrids," said June Nasrallah, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology at Cornell.

Nasrallah's research group is working with Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant related to cabbage and mustard that is widely used in plant genetic research and whose genome has been sequenced. Previously, the group showed that two genes known as SCR and SRK are the key to self-incompatibility. SCR codes for a protein on the surface of pollen grains, and SRK codes for a receptor in the cell membranes of stigma cells. When these two proteins come from the same plant, the stigma rejects the pollen, and fertilization does not occur.

A. thaliana is highly self-fertile, but the Nasrallah group inserted SCR and SRK genes from another species, A. lyrata, which is self-incompatible, and created A. thaliana varieties that ranged from self-incompatible to "pseudo self-compatible," where a plant resists self-pollination for a while, but if it is not pollinated from another plant it will eventually accept its own pollen. In nature, pseudo self-compatibility is a best-of-two-worlds mating strategy, Nasrallah said, because it maintains the benefits of out-crossing while providing reproductive assurance when mates or pollinators are scarce.

In the latest research, Pei Liu, a postdoctoral researcher in Nasrallah's laboratory, and colleagues mapped the genomes of several varieties of transgenic A. thaliana in fine detail and isolated a gene known as PUB8 that seems to regulate the expression of SRK -- that is, whether or not it is turned on to manufacture its protein.

The PUB8 gene shows some variation from one variety of A. thaliana to another, i.e., the DNA sequence contains a few different bases here and there. The degree to which self-incompatibility is turned on in the plant seems to correlate with these variations. PUB8-mediated pseudo self-compatibility might have been a transitional phase in the evolutionary switch from self-incompatibility to selfing in A. thaliana, Nasrallah speculates.

PUB8 is very close to SCR and SRK on the genome. It is unusual to find a regulatory gene so close to the gene it regulates, the researchers noted. PUB8 is expressed in other parts of the plant and probably has other functions, they said, adding that still other genes are probably involved in self-incompatibility.

Co-authors of the paper, along with Pei and Nasrallah, are graduate student Susan Sherman-Broyles and Mikhail Nasrallah, Cornell professor of plant biology.

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Can a Taste for Poison Drive Speciation?

- Innovations Report (Germany), April 24, 2007, http://www.innovations-report.de/html/berichte/biowissenschaften_chemie/bericht-83172.html

The endless struggle for survival in nature inevitably boils down to finding food and eluding predators. To avoid the latter, many plants produce chemical weapons to discourage predators.

A sound strategy overall, but the rules of co-evolutionary war suggest that an herbivore will evolve resistance to the toxic defenses of plants. The fruit fly Drosophila sechellia, for example, has a penchant for the fruit of a Polynesian shrub called Tahitian Noni (Morinda citrifolia) that smells so foul it's nicknamed 'vomit fruit.' Other Drosophila species treat the rank odor, which arises from the toxins hexanoic acid and octanoic acid, as a warning sign to stay away.

And with good reason-if they alight on Tahitian Noni's fruit, they die. But D. sechellia blithely homes in on the malodorous fruit to lay its eggs, ensuring a bounteous meal for its larval offspring. D. sechellia's resistance to a plant that kills likely competitors gives the fly nearly exclusive access to its host-a distinct ecological advantage. But it also raises an important question for evolutionary biologists: are the factors that promote specialized ecological interactions between herbivore and plant host sufficient to drive herbivore speciation?

In a new study, published by PLoS Bioogy, Takashi Matsuo, Yoshiaki Fuyama, and colleagues explored the genetic factors underlying the behavioral differences between D. sechellia and other Drosophila species. Taking advantage of the robust genetic tools offered by D. melanogaster, the researchers traced the flies' divergent host-plant preferences to two olfactory genes, odorant-binding protein 57e (Obp57e) and Obp57d. Their findings suggest that as the expression patterns of these genes changed in D. sechellia, the fly lost the impulse to avoid Tahitian Noni, allowing an adaptive shift to this previously proscribed plant.

The researchers generated lines of "knock-out" flies that lacked either Obp57e genes, adjacent Obp57d genes, or both (called double knock-outs). Flies lacking just one of the genes avoided hexanoic acid-laden traps, whereas females missing both genes flocked to them. But the most interesting results came when the researchers compared the knock-out strains' choice of hexanoic acid or octanoic acid as an egg-laying medium. When the D. melanogaster double knock-out received either the D. sechellia or D. simulans' versions of Obp57e and Obp57d, it adopted the behavior of the donor fly. Thus, replacing Obp57d and Obp57e genes changed the fly's response to the host toxins. The researchers conclude that an alteration in the expression pattern of the two genes produces this behavioral shift.

In future experiments, the researchers plan to minimize the interaction of these two genes to understand their separate functions. Until then, it appears that D. sechellia's choice of forbidden fruit as a reproductive site involved genetic changes that promoted resistance to octanoic acid and transformed an urge to avoid the toxin into a fondness for its fetor. The researchers suspect that the fly lost its urge to avoid the fruit first; a plausible scenario if an ancestral population of flies landed on fruit in advanced stages of decay, when octanoic acid toxins have mostly degraded. Behavioral adaptations between herbivores and their hosts tend to involve changes in genes linked to taste and odor perception. With over 50 Obp genes in the D. melanogaster genome, researchers have a rich resource for studying the ecological contributions to speciation.

Citation: Matsuo T, Sugaya S, Yasukawa J, Aigaki T, Fuyama Y (2007) Odorant-binding proteins OBP57d and OBP57e affect taste perception and host-plant preference in Drosophila sechellia. PLoS Biol 5(5): e118. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050118

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Spray to quell E. coli

- Delthia Ricks, Newsday, April 23, 2007, http://www.amny.com/news/health/ny-hscoli235183224apr23,0,4662231.story

Baltimore company seeking FDA approval for viral substance to kill the bacteria on produce, raw meat

A small Baltimore biotech company next month will seek U.S. regulatory approval of a spray composed of bacteria-killing viruses that will destroy E. coli on raw hamburger and fresh produce.

The bacterial strain - referred to as O157:H7 - caused two major waves of foodborne illnesses last year. Contaminated spinach sickened 199 people nationwide and killed three in an outbreak that began in September and ran for more than a month. In December, an outbreak linked to contaminated lettuce served at Taco Bell restaurants caused 99 infections, most of them on Long Island and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.

advertisement Spraying meat and produce during processing could lead to a dramatic decline in illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7, said John Vazzana, president and chief executive of Intralytix, the company developing the spray.

E. coli O157:H7 is a bovine strain discovered in the early 1980s after its genes merged with the Shigella bacterium. The emergent E. coli had a new toxin-producing feature that sometimes proves deadly.

Vazzana said the viruses, which are called bacteriophages, or phages, are E. coli's natural predator. Phages pose no harm to humans, he said, and in tests have been very effective in eliminating E. coli on a wide range of foods.

"We have tested the product on red meat and on fruits and vegetables, mostly broccoli and spinach," Vazzana said in an interview Friday. "We have very good efficacy data in controlled studies."

Vazzana's company was the first in the nation last year to receive Food and Drug Administration approval for another viral spray. Also made of phages, that spray was designed to kill listeria and is aimed at producers of cold cuts. Listeria is potentially lethal for pregnant women and anyone with suppressed immunity.

David Spector, director of research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said phages are viruses that infect only bacteria. "You can think of it as a parasite that multiplies inside of bacteria," Spector said. Once inside a bacterial cell, a phage commandeers the organism's genes and proceeds to make hundreds of new phages, destroying the bacterium in the process.

Spector added that Cold Spring Harbor was once abuzz with activity in phage research but has not been involved in it for 40 years. Alfred Hershey won the 1969 Nobel Prize for his work at the lab on phage genetics.

"The truth is that phages are the most ubiquitous organisms on the planet," Vazzana said. "In a milliliter of unpolluted water there are about 200 million phages."

He added that his company's anti-E. coli spray would not affect so-called good strains of E. coli in the human digestive tract because the phages in his product are highly specific to O157:H7.

As unsavory as viral sprays for food might seem, there could be reason to welcome their presence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this month that little progress has been made against the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in recent years. The agency estimates that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the United States annually caused by a range of pathogens. About 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 die.

"Using them for food products is a very good idea," William Jacobs, a microbiology professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, said of phages. "The reality is we're surrounded by phages whether we like it or not."

Isolated for the first time in 1917 by French biologists, phages have a storied past. As early as 1920, French researchers reported limited success in treating infections by exploiting phages' ability to infect and destroy bacteria.

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Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons

Alexei Barrionuevo, Apr 24, 2007, New York Times

BELTSVILLE, Md. What is happening to the bees?

More than a quarter of the country's 2.4 million bee colonies have been lost -- tens of billions of bees, according to an estimate from the Apiary Inspectors of America, a national group that tracks beekeeping. So far, no one can say what is causing the bees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives.

As with any great mystery, a number of theories have been posed, and many seem to researchers to be more science fiction than science. People have blamed genetically modified crops, cellular phone towers and high-voltage transmission lines for the disappearances. Or was it a secret plot by Russia or Osama bin Laden to bring down American agriculture-- Or, as some blogs have asserted, the rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them to heaven" Researchers have heard it all.

The volume of theories "is totally mind-boggling," said Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University. With Jeffrey S. Pettis, an entomologist from the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Cox-Foster is leading a team of researchers who are trying to find answers to explain "colony collapse disorder," the name given for the disappearing bee syndrome.

"Clearly there is an urgency to solve this," Dr. Cox-Foster said. "We are trying to move as quickly as we can."

Dr. Cox-Foster and fellow scientists who are here at a two-day meeting to discuss early findings and future plans with government officials have been focusing on the most likely suspects: a virus, a fungus or a pesticide.

About 60 researchers from North America sifted the possibilities at the meeting today. Some expressed concern about the speed at which adult bees are disappearing from their hives; some colonies have collapsed in as little as two days. Others noted that countries in Europe, as well as Guatemala and parts of Brazil, are also struggling for answers.

"There are losses around the world that may or not be linked," Dr. Pettis said.

The investigation is now entering a critical phase. The researchers have collected samples in several states and have begun doing bee autopsies and genetic analysis.

So far, known enemies of the bee world, like the varroa mite, on their own at least, do not appear to be responsible for the unusually high losses.

Genetic testing at Columbia University has revealed the presence of multiple micro-organisms in bees from hives or colonies that are in decline, suggesting that something is weakening their immune system. The researchers have found some fungi in the affected bees that are found in humans whose immune systems have been suppressed by the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or cancer.

"That is extremely unusual," Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Meanwhile, samples were sent to an Agriculture Department laboratory in North Carolina this month to screen for 117 chemicals. Particular suspicion falls on a pesticide that France banned out of concern that it may have been decimating bee colonies. Concern has also mounted among public officials.

"There are so many of our crops that require pollinators," said Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat whose district includes that state"s central agricultural valley, and who presided last month at a Congressional hearing on the bee issue. "We need an urgent call to arms to try to ascertain what is really going on here with the bees, and bring as much science as we possibly can to bear on the problem."

So far, colony collapse disorder has been found in 27 states, according to Bee Alert Technology Inc., a company monitoring the problem. A recent survey of 13 states by the Apiary Inspectors of America showed that 26 percent of beekeepers had lost half of their bee colonies between September and March.

Honeybees are arguably the insects that are most important to the human food chain. They are the principal pollinators of hundreds of fruits, vegetables, flowers and nuts. The number of bee colonies has been declining since the 1940s, even as the crops that rely on them, such as California almonds, have grown. In October, at about the time that beekeepers were experiencing huge bee losses, a study by the National Academy of Sciences questioned whether American agriculture was relying too heavily on one type of pollinator, the honeybee.

Bee colonies have been under stress in recent years as more beekeepers have resorted to crisscrossing the country with 18-wheel trucks full of bees in search of pollination work. These bees may suffer from a diet that includes artificial supplements, concoctions akin to energy drinks and power bars. In several states, suburban sprawl has limited the bees" natural forage areas.

So far, the researchers have discounted the possibility that poor diet alone could be responsible for the widespread losses. They have also set aside for now the possibility that the cause could be bees feeding from a commonly used genetically modified crop, Bt corn, because the symptoms typically associated with toxins, such as blood poisoning, are not showing up in the affected bees. But researchers emphasized today that feeding supplements produced from genetically modified crops, such as high-fructose corn syrup, need to be studied.

The scientists say that definitive answers for the colony collapses could be months away. But recent advances in biology and genetic sequencing are speeding the search.

Computers can decipher information from DNA and match pieces of genetic code with particular organisms. Luckily, a project to sequence some 11,000 genes of the honeybee was completed late last year at Baylor University, giving scientists a huge head start on identifying any unknown pathogens in the bee tissue.

"Otherwise, we would be looking for the needle in the haystack," Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Large bee losses are not unheard of. They have been reported at several points in the past century. But researchers think they are dealing with something new " or at least with something previously unidentified.

"There could be a number of factors that are weakening the bees or speeding up things that shorten their lives," said Dr. W. Steve Sheppard, a professor of entomology at Washington State University. "The answer may already be with us."

Scientists first learned of the bee disappearances in November, when David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, told Dr. Cox-Foster that more than 50 percent of his bee colonies had collapsed in Florida, where he had taken them for the winter.

Dr. Cox-Foster, a 20-year veteran of studying bees, soon teamed with Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the Pennsylvania apiary inspector, to look into the losses.

In December, she approached W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Greene Infectious Disease Laboratory at Columbia University, about doing genetic sequencing of tissue from bees in the colonies that experienced losses. The laboratory uses a recently developed technique for reading and amplifying short sequences of DNA that has revolutionized the science. Dr. Lipkin, who typically works on human diseases, agreed to do the analysis, despite not knowing who would ultimately pay for it. His laboratory is known for its work in finding the West Nile disease in the United States.

Dr. Cox-Foster ultimately sent samples of bee tissue to researchers at Columbia, to the Agriculture Department laboratory in Maryland, and to Gene Robinson, an entomologist at the University of Illinois. Fortuitously, she had frozen bee samples from healthy colonies dating to 2004 to use for comparison.

After receiving the first bee samples from Dr. Cox-Foster on March 6, Dr. Lipkin"s team amplified the genetic material and started sequencing to separate virus, fungus and parasite DNA from bee DNA.

"This is like C.S.I. for agriculture," Dr. Lipkin said. "It is painstaking, gumshoe detective work."

Dr. Lipkin sent his first set of results to Dr. Cox-Foster, showing that several unknown micro-organisms were present in the bees from collapsing colonies. Meanwhile, Mr. vanEngelsdorp and researchers at the Agriculture Department lab here began an autopsy of bees from collapsing colonies in California, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania to search for any known bee pathogens.

At the University of Illinois, using knowledge gained from the sequencing of the bee genome, Dr. Robinson"s team will try to find which genes in the collapsing colonies are particularly active, perhaps indicating stress from exposure to a toxin or pathogen.

The national research team also quietly began a parallel study in January, financed in part by the National Honey Board, to further determine if something pathogenic could be causing colonies to collapse.

Mr. Hackenberg, the beekeeper, agreed to take his empty bee boxes and other equipment to Food Technology Service, a company in Mulberry, Fla., that uses gamma rays to kill bacteria on medical equipment and some fruits. In early results, the irradiated bee boxes seem to have shown a return to health for colonies repopulated with Australian bees.

"This supports the idea that there is a pathogen there," Dr. Cox-Foster said. "It would be hard to explain the irradiation getting rid of a chemical."

Still, some environmental substances remain suspicious.

Chris Mullin, a Pennsylvania State University professor and insect toxicologist, recently sent a set of samples to a federal laboratory in Raleigh, N.C., that will screen for 117 chemicals. Of greatest interest are the "systemic" chemicals that are able to pass through a plant"s circulatory system and move to the new leaves or the flowers, where they would come in contact with bees.

One such group of compounds is called neonicotinoids, commonly used pesticides that are used to treat corn and other seeds against pests. One of the neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, is commonly used in Europe and the United States to treat seeds, to protect residential foundations against termites and to help keep golf courses and home lawns green.

In the late 1990s, French beekeepers reported large losses of their bees and complained about the use of imidacloprid, sold under the brand name Gaucho. The chemical, while not killing the bees outright, was causing them to be disoriented and stay away from their hives, leading them to die of exposure to the cold, French researchers later found. The beekeepers labeled the syndrome "mad bee disease."

The French government banned the pesticide in 1999 for use on sunflowers, and later for corn, despite protests by the German chemical giant Bayer, which has said its internal research showed the pesticide was not toxic to bees. Subsequent studies by independent French researchers have disagreed with Bayer. Alison Chalmers, an eco-toxicologist for Bayer CropScience, said at the meeting today that bee colonies had not recovered in France as beekeepers had expected. "These chemicals are not being used anymore," she said of imidacloprid, "so they certainly were not the only cause."

Among the pesticides being tested in the American bee investigation, the neonicotinoids group "is the number-one suspect," Dr. Mullin said. He hoped results of the toxicology screening will be ready within a month.

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ed. note: Neither Maryann Frazier, a Pennsylvania State University professor, nor Bayer CropScience, which produces imidacloprid, think the insecticide is the cause. See "Bee decline worries growers," John F. Bonfatt, The Buffalo News (NY), April 22, 2007, http://www.buffalonews.com/258/story/59348.html?imw=Y

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GM protesters vainly toil in soil

- BBC News, April 24, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/humber/6587125.stm

Protesters dressed as Mr Potato Head descended on the field

Environmental activists have apologised to a farmer after planting thousands of organic potatoes in a field which they had mistaken for a crop trial site.

Activists calling themselves mutatoes.org descended on a field in East Yorkshire to scupper a GM trial.

But after back-breaking work digging up the rock-hard ground the group now admit they made a mistake.

Farmer's son Chris Buckton said there were no GM trials at the site and the field only carried cattle feed crops.

In an effort to invalidate the trial of what the campaigners thought was a field full of genetically modified potatoes the group held a rally in Hull before travelling to the farm on the outskirts of the city.

But when they got to the area there was confusion over exactly which field they should target.

In a statement the group said the map grid reference given by the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra) as the site for the trial was not very accurate.

Cath Parker from the mutatoes.org group said they did have an important point to make, but the mistake had been a salutary lesson.

"We're a collection of people who have been actively opposing GM crop trials, she said. "We're fairly sure it won't have damaged his crop too much.

"It has been incredibly dry for a long time and the ground was very hard. We're very sorry for the trouble we've caused."

Chris Buckton, whose family farm at Highfield Farm near Hedon, said: "We expected around five or six people, but when we got there, there was about 200 of them.

"They were walking around the field and had what appeared to be a base in the middle. It was a peaceful protest and then someone with a loudspeaker said they were going to plant these potatoes.

"They all had a shovel and started to dig. We found it quite funny, you know, it seems really stupid that these guys are supposed to be into the environment, but don't know what a potato crop looks like."

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NABC 19: Agricultural Biofuels: Technology, Sustainability and Profitability

May 22-24, 2007 South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD

Register online now! May 1st deadline [http://nabc19.sdstate.org/ ]

SDSU to host 2007 National Agricultural Biotechnology Council Conference - May 22-24

SDSU will host NABC 19: Agricultural Biofuels: Technology, Sustainability and Profitability. Since 1988, the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC) has hosted annual public meetings about the safe, ethical and efficacious development of agricultural biotechnology products. NABC is a not-for-profit consortium comprised of 36 leading agricultural research and teaching university and governmental agencies, including SDSU. Collectively, the group addresses the central questions of agricultural biotechnology from a multi-constituency perspective. It provides an open forum for persons with different interests and concerns to come together to speak, listen and learn from meaningful dialogue on the potential impacts of agricultural biotechnology.

Invited speakers include: Suzanne Hunt, Worldwatch Institute; Steve Bantz, Union of Concerned Scientists; Bill Richards, 25 x 25 Coalition; Wally Tyner, Purdue; Maria Wellisch, CANMET Energy Technology Centre, Canada; Tom Daschle, former US Senate Majority Leader, and Mike Rounds, Governor of South Dakota.

Contact for more information: Janean Caugherty Program Assistant I Agricultural Experiment Station SAG 135 Box 2207 Brookings, SD 57007 email: janean.caugherty+at+sdstate.edu

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Plant-Incorporated Protectants; Potential Revisions to Current Production Regulations; Notice of Public Meetings

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; Announcement of Public Meetings, Federal Register: April 11, 2007, http://www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-PEST/2007/April/Day-11/p6621.htm

[The US] EPA is announcing two public meetings to be held during the comment period of the ANPRM, entitled Plant-Incorporated Protectants; Potential Revisions to Current Production Regulations. The ANPRM announces EPA's intention to develop and propose amendments to existing regulations affecting producers of plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs), a type of pesticide. The Agency is considering amendments to the existing regulations, which were written primarily for producers of ``traditional'' pesticides, because PIPs are unlike other types of pesticides currently regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Given that PIPs are part of a living organism, they can be replicated and potentially produced anywhere a plant containing the PIP grows. The purpose of the public meetings is to further communicate the regulatory issues described in the ANPRM, and to provide an opportunity for a public dialogue and exchange of information on these and related issues. The meetings will be organized around the questions and issue posed in the ANPRM.

DATES: Meetings: The Chicago, IL meeting will be held on May 2, 2007, from noon to 4:30 p.m., CDT. The Arlington, VA meeting will be held on May 22, 2007, from noon to 4:30 p.m., EDT. Participation: To make oral comment and/or a presentation at these meetings, submit a request to the person listed under FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT no later than 10 days before the meeting that you plan to attend. See also Unit III.A. of the SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION. Special accommodations: For information on access or services for individuals with disabilities, and to request accommodation of a disability, please contact the person listed under FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT, preferably at least 10 days prior to the meeting, to give EPA as much time as possible to process your request.

ADDRESSES: The meetings will be held in Rm. 331, EPA Region 5, Ralph Metcalfe Federal Bldg., 77 West Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60604 and in Rm. S-4370, One Potomac Yard (South Bldg.), 2777 S. Crystal Dr., Arlington, VA 22202.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Stephen J. Howie, Office of Science Coordination and Policy, Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW., Washington, DC 20460-0001; telephone number: (202) 564-4146; fax number: (202) 564-8502; e-mail address: howie.stephen+at+epa.gov.

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