Today in AgBioView, from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org May 2, 2007
* Scientists Display Modified Sorghum Crop
* Ban on GM Alfalfa Could Hurt Production
* GM crops 'becoming popular'
* Vaccines in the War on E. Coli
* Little plant has big applications
* Banana-based vaccine for hepatitis B
* Americans' Trust in Science, Approach to Scientific Issues
Scientists Display Modified Sorghum Crop
- Michael Graczyk, Associated Press via Casper Star Tribune, May 2, 2007
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - Texas A&M University scientists showed off to state and federal officials Tuesday a genetically engineered crop of sorghum they believe will be a more efficient and economical option to corn in drier parts of the country as the nation pushes for alternative energy sources.
Sorghum, which as a plant resembles stalks of corn, is a centuries-old grain common around the world but used more in the United States as a livestock feed. At Texas A&M, researchers have been working over the past several years to extend its growing season, allowing it to double its height to more than 10 to 15 feet, thicken its stalk and be even more drought tolerant.
The genetic changes make it ideal to raise in the South and Southeast where the growing season already is longer than in northern sections of the country. The climate also makes it more suitable than growing corn, which has emerged as a biofuel alternative used in ethanol production, particularly in the Midwest.
The cellulose from one version of the sorghum and sugar from another version similarly can be processed for fuel. Researchers said energy yields could top those from corn and at a more reasonable cost, making it an economic windfall for farmers.
"It's really a matter of national security if we can lessen our dependence on imported oil and turn to those we can trust, and that is our nation's farmers," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said after a briefing and tour of A&M agriculture and biofuel labs.
"For decades we have depended on what's below the ground for our nation's energy and now we can turn to what's above the ground. With the yields that are being forecast, with the continual growing season in certain parts of Texas and in particular the lower water usage, it offers great promise."
Some of the new crop could allow for as many as three harvests annually in areas like the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
"Agriculture already has been highly successful in providing this nation and the people with an abundant supply of food, feed and fiber," said Undersecretary of Agriculture Gale Buchanan, who also participated in the half-day briefing. "I'm equally convinced it will be just as successful adding energy to that portfolio."
Texas, with 1.3 million acres harvested in 2005, and Kansas are the nation's leading sorghum-producing states. A&M researchers said they've been working with their counterparts at Kansas State University in developing sorghum for ethanol use. About 15 percent of the domestic grain sorghum crop already goes into ethanol production, according to the National Sorghum Producers, an industry trade group.
Bill Rooney, an associate professor and coordinator of the A&M sorghum breeding and genetics program, said he hopes to have the genetically engineered crop commercially available in three years. Petrochemical companies already have been to College Station to discuss their interest.
Brett Cornwell, commercialization services director with the Texas A&M System, touted the economic benefits of the sorghum project for farmers.
"If a farmer's breaking even, they're not going to grow our product," he said. "What we're looking at with the sorghum is a solution that works in the right places with the right farmers and delivers to the farmers. They're not just in the game for God, America and apple pie. They will make money."
Cornwell said sorghum could be a "regional solution that works in the Southeast and may work in California."
"The reality of the bio-energy program in the U.S. is it's not going to be a silver bullet. There's going to be regional solutions. Corn works in Iowa. Obviously, it's where the feedstock is."
Buchanan agreed, saying he believed a key to energy independence "is each part of the country has got to focus on what it can grow and use."
"And clearly this is sorghum country," he said. "I think that's a reflection of what we've got to do throughout the country."
UW Researchers Say Ban on Genetic Alfalfa Could Hurt Wyoming Production
- University of Wyoming, press release, May 1, 2007
A court decision temporarily halting the planting of genetically-engineered alfalfa could hurt Wyoming production, according to researchers in the University of Wyoming's College of Agriculture.
"We're a top state in producing the Roundup Ready seed for companies, and this could impact our alfalfa seed growers," says Stephen D. Miller, associate dean in the College of Agriculture and director of the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station. Miller and colleagues Andrew Kniss, Craig Alford and Robert Wilson have performed research on Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Robin Groose, an associate professor in UW's Department of Plant Sciences, agrees with Miller the decision could affect Wyoming production.
"It's unclear what the effect of the judge's ruling would be at this point, but alfalfa is our most important crop," Groose says.
Wyoming, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), produced 1.5 million tons of alfalfa for forage in 2005, grown on approximately 600,000 acres. It also produced 3.47 million pounds of alfalfa seed from 5,600 acres. The value of the 2005 alfalfa crop was nearly $113 million.
Comments by Miller and Groose are in response to a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of San Francisco, whose ruling stemmed from a lawsuit against the USDA.
Farmers who already had purchased the herbicide-resistant alfalfa seed must have planted it by March 30. No new sales of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed will be allowed until the case is resolved, according to the judge's preliminary injunction.
The seed, produced by St. Louis, Mo.-based Monsanto Co. and Forage Genetics International of Nampa, Idaho, is resistant to herbicides including Roundup weed killer manufactured by Monsanto. Groose says genetically produced seed would help in weed control.
"From an economic standpoint, Roundup Ready seed would benefit the growers who would want to use it," he says.
The judge ruled the federal government failed to fully consider the public health, economic and environmental consequences before allowing the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa.
The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy group with offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, sued on behalf of farmers who complained the seed could contaminate organic and conventional alfalfa.
Miller says it could take months for a decision, and that could hurt Wyoming's seed producers this year.
Miller, Kniss, a research scientist in the Department of Plant Sciences, Alford, a former associate research scientist in the department, and Wilson, an adjunct professor with the department and an extension weed specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Scottsbluff, Neb., published a bulletin on Roundup Ready alfalfa available at www.uwyo.edu/CES/PUBS/B1173.pdf.
Genetically modified crops 'becoming popular'
- The Tribune (Punjab), April 30, 2007
Chandigarh - Opposition from various non-government organisations notwithstanding, the area under genetically modified (GM) crops is increasing rapidly in the country.
Farmers' preference for Bt cotton can be gauged from the fact that 70 per cent of the total area under this crop was covered by Bt seeds. " In the next two or three years, Bt cotton will be spread over 90 per cent of the total area under this crop", said Dr P.Ananda Kumar, principal scientist, national research centre on plant biotechnology, and chairman, monitoring-cum -evaluation committee.
Dr Kumar told The Tribune that in 2002, only 0.5 million hectares was under Bt cotton and last year the area went up to 3.8 million hectares. The use of pesticides to save the cotton crop from pests, mainly the American bollworm, had gone down by 75 per cent, he claimed.
Asked about reports that genetically modified crops created health problems like skin diseases, he said there was no such report from any part of the cotton belt so far. " I believe it is just propaganda against such crops and there is no authentic report in this regard", he added.
G. Balachandharan, joint secretary, union ministry of environment and forests, said here today that after the introduction of Bt cotton in various parts of the country, now the focus was not on water-guzzling crops like rice.
Balachandharan was here to preside over a training workshop on bio-safety issues hosted by the Punjab state council for science and technology. Asked about the high price of Bt seeds, Balachandharan said it was true that in first years of Bt cotton, companies charged a high price. " But now we are recommending the Bt seeds of various companies to introduce competition in sales." Last year, we recommended the cotton seed of various companies and it brought down the price from Rs 1,400 per bag to Rs 700-800. We expect that the price will come down further in two or three three years", he added.
Punjab chief secretary Ramesh Inder Singh, who inaugurated the workshop, listed the steps taken to promote bio-technology in the state.
Others who spoke at the workshop were Dr N.S. Tiwana, Dr Manoranjan Hota, M.P. Singh, Jatinder Kaur Arora and P. Ananda Kumar.
Scientists Look to Vaccines in the War on E. Coli
- Andrew Pollack, New York Times, May 1, 2007
Shousun C. Szu, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, says the best way to prevent people from being poisoned by deadly E. coli would be to vaccinate all infants against the bacteria.
Graeme McRae, a Canadian biotechnology executive, says it would be more practical to inoculate cows instead.
Vaccines for people and for cattle are just two approaches under development to prevent or treat food poisoning by the strain E. coli O157:H7.
Right now, scientists can do little medically to fight the pathogen, which was responsible for two severe outbreaks last fall, one from contaminated bagged spinach and a second from tainted lettuce served in chain taco restaurants.
The main approach has been to try to prevent contamination through careful handling, rigorous inspections and government regulation.
Slaughterhouses have already sharply reduced contamination through practices like washing carcasses with hot water, steam or acids. Now the focus is on new procedures and regulations for the fresh-produce industry.
Some researchers say medical approaches could eventually supplement food-processing measures. To pave the way, an advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration met on April 12 to discuss how to run clinical trials of drugs to treat E. coli infections.
On the animal side, a vaccine for cattle developed by Mr. McRae's company, Bioniche Life Sciences, was approved in December for distribution to veterinarians in Canada. Studies have shown that the vaccine can reduce but not eliminate the E. coli shed into manure.
Not only does that make the cows cleaner as they go into the slaughterhouse, but it could also conceivably reduce the risk that the germ will spread from a feedlot to a nearby produce field though water or wild animals. Cows and their manure are considered the major sources of the pathogen.
"If we can reduce the likelihood that animals are going to carry the bacteria, then we might reduce over time what they put out into the environment," said Guy Loneragan, a veterinary epidemiologist at West Texas A&M University, who has received financing from the beef industry.
Other methods being tested include cattle antibiotics, an industrial chemical, bacterial-killing viruses and friendly bacteria to displace the evil ones.
One big potential barrier is that ranchers and feedlots may have little incentive to pay for such treatments, because they do not make the cows grow faster. Nor do they keep the cows healthy, because O157 does not sicken the cows that harbor it.
"The cattle industry is within pennies of making a profit or not," said Carolyn Hovde Bohach, a professor of microbiology at the University of Idaho who is working on a different E. coli vaccine for cattle. "Would it be their responsibility to protect vegetables?"
Efforts to develop drugs and vaccines for people also face barriers. Because outbreaks are rare and sporadic, for instance, it would be difficult to test such treatments in clinical trials.
It might be hard to diagnose the infection in time to intervene medically.
And any treatment would have to be very safe, because it would be given to children and because most people improve without any intervention.
E. coli O157:H7 causes 75,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year, according to a 1999 estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted on its Web site. The actual number of confirmed cases has dropped since then, particularly in 2003 and 2004, but increased in 2005 and 2006, in part because of the outbreaks tied to spinach and lettuce.
As few as 10 bacteria can make someone ill. The bacteria release one or two potent toxins that cause bloody diarrhea. In 15 percent of children younger than 10, and more rarely for adults, the infection causes hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. In a small percentage of such cases, the syndrome proves fatal.
Dr. Phillip I. Tarr, an expert at Washington University in St. Louis, says treatment is difficult because the bloody diarrhea that signals infection may not occur until three to four days after ingestion of the bacteria. By then, a patient could be well on the way to kidney failure.
Antibiotics, the usual treatment for bacterial infection, only make things worse by killing the bacteria and releasing more of their toxin, Dr. Tarr said. He added that the sole treatment shown to reduce the severity of kidney problems was intravenous fluids.
Other scientists are trying. Thallion Pharmaceuticals of Montreal and Teijin Pharma of Japan have separately developed monoclonal antibodies that can latch on to the toxin molecules and neutralize them. Monoclonal antibodies, a synthetic version of the body's own infection fighters, are commonly used to treat cancer and other diseases.
Thallion and Teijin have shown that the antibodies can protect laboratory animals from lethal doses and have conducted preliminary safety testing in people. But at the recent F.D.A. advisory committee meeting, both said it would be prohibitively expensive to test whether their drugs could prevent hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Some outside scientists question whether a treatment that starts after the toxin is already in the bloodstream would be effective.
Dr. Szu of the health institutes said a better approach would be to vaccinate people so their immune systems could dispense with the bacteria before they had a chance to multiply and release their toxin in the bloodstream.
She and colleagues have developed a vaccine made of the complex sugar that is on the surface of the bacteria, the very O-type polysaccharide that gives O157 its name. The sugar is linked to a protein taken from another bacterium to make it more potent in stimulating the immune system.
Dr. Szu and collaborators have tested the vaccine on adult volunteers and on children 2 to 5. The volunteers were not exposed to O157 - that would be unethical - but they developed antibodies to it. Moreover, when the bacteria were exposed in the laboratory to blood samples from vaccinated people, the microbes were killed. Dr. Szu said the next test would be in infants.
The vaccine is years from the market. As with drugs, testing effectiveness would be difficult, and some experts say it may not make sense to vaccinate every child to protect a small number.
"A lot of the economics of it would not be very favorable," said James B. Kaper, an expert on O157 at the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland.
Dr. Szu disagreed, saying, "All human lives are precious, especially if you talk to parents who lost their children."
The cattle vaccine developed by Bioniche is based on the work of B. Brett Finlay of the University of British Columbia, who helped discover how O157 bacteria attach themselves to the cattle intestines, where they can then multiply.
The bacteria use a type of microscopic syringe to shoot proteins into the cells lining the intestine, and the cells erect a protein pedestal, to which the bacteria can bind.
The Bioniche vaccine consists of proteins involved in the attachment. The idea is that the cow's immune system would make antibodies to attack the proteins, thereby blocking the attachment. The bacteria could still pass through the cow and into manure. But if they could not colonize, their levels should remain low.
Tests at the University of Nebraska found that the vaccine reduced by 70 percent the number of cows shedding O157 into their manure, said Rodney A. Moxley, a professor of veterinary science there.
Mr. McRae, president of Bioniche in Belleville, Ontario, said the company would begin to distribute the vaccine in Canada in June or July after it increases manufacturing capacity. The approval there is conditional, and the company has to provide more data showing that the vaccine works.
Mr. McRae said he hoped to obtain approval to sell the vaccine in the United States from the Agriculture Department this year. He said feedlots would be charged no more than $2.20 a dose, with two doses needed.
Randall D. Huffman, vice president for scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute, which represents beef processors, said that the cost was "not trivial" and that the vaccine "might not be right for everyone," because it was not 100 percent effective.
Still, Mr. Huffman said, "If there is technology that is proven effective and is reasonable in cost, I think you'll see it adopted."
His organization and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association helped pay for the research on the vaccine and other approaches to reducing the shedding of O157.
One approach already in use is probiotics, the idea that friendly bacteria fed to cattle will displace O157. The Nutrition Physiology Corporation of Guymon, Okla., sells a feed additive with lactobacillus, the same type of bacterium used in yogurt. The additive is sold to aid cattle digestion, but some studies suggest that it also reduces O157 in manure.
An experimental approach is to feed cows sodium chlorate, a chemical used in the pulp and paper industry. This idea takes advantage of the fact that O157 has an enzyme that allows it to survive without oxygen, which is not true for most desirable bacteria. That enzyme will convert sodium chlorate to sodium chlorite, which poisons the pathogen.
"It's like a suicide pill to the E. coli," said Robin C. Anderson, a microbiologist for the Agriculture Department in College Station, Tex. Dr. Anderson said the treatment did not harm the cow.
Eka Chemicals, which makes sodium chlorate for the paper industry, is working to obtain regulatory approval for a cattle treatment.
The antibiotic neomycin has also been shown to reduce O157 levels in manure.
Using antibiotics in animals raises concerns of spurring development of human pathogens resistant to the medicines. Another approach being studied involves phages, viruses that infect and kill bacteria.
Experts say multiple approaches might be used in parallel, because no single approach works perfectly.
Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said he was skeptical about all the approaches. "What really is a concern to me about this issue is we always have a tendency to want high-tech responses to what in many cases are common-sense low-tech solutions," Dr. Osterholm said.
He is a consultant to Fresh Express, the leading seller of bagged salads, and is head of a committee that will disburse $2 million from the company for research on how the produce industry should handle E. coli. He said stringent safety procedures had kept that company from having any contamination incidents.
In any case, even if a high-tech solution was desired, there does not seem to be a vaccine for spinach as there is for cattle.
Greens are now often rinsed in chlorine solution, but that is not always effective because surface nooks and crannies can shelter the bacteria, said James Gorney, senior vice president for food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group.
A possible alternative is to use a gas like chlorine dioxide instead of a liquid wash, Dr. Gorney said. Irradiation can also kill the bacteria. But he said the amount of radiation needed could damage fruits or vegetables. And some consumers object to the technique.
"Any one of these technologies doesn't offer us a pasteurization step," Dr. Gorney said. "So we are left with prevention, prevention and prevention, preventing the contamination from ever occurring."
At biotech, little plant has big applications
- Chuck Bowen, Indianapolis Star, May 1, 2007
Mention bioengineering, or gene modification, and some folks conjure images of mad scientists, cloned species and evil experiments gone awry.
However, an Indianapolis-based life-sciences company is pioneering ways to genetically modify the simplest of plants -- single-celled algae -- to help create better vaccines, food products called nutraceuticals and even biofuels.
By tinkering with the chloroplasts inside each algal cell, Richard Wagner and the other researchers at Phycotransgenics can get the plants to produce recombinant proteins that can be harvested and used in various products.
"It's like a little factory for producing a protein," said Wagner, president of Phycotransgenics, a wholly owned subsidiary of PhycoBiologics.
Researchers at Phycotransgenics and two sister companies -- Phylein in Vero Beach, Fla., and PhycoBiologics Canada on Prince Edward Island in Canada -- are modifying the well-known, single-celled algal species, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.
About seven years ago, Wagner founded Phycotransgenics -- "phyco" is the Greek root for algae; "transgenic" means changing genes -- in a business incubator in Columbus, Ohio.
In 2004, Wagner received a 21st Century Fund grant for $1.8 million; the next year, he moved his startup here to Indiana University's Emerging Technologies Center located Downtown. Wagner has raised almost $3 million for his company.
He said the parent company, PhycoBiologics, which employs 15 people at its three locations in the U.S. and Canada, is "still an R&D company" at heart, but he hopes to crack $1 million in revenue in 2008.
Mark Long, chief executive of the Emerging Technologies Center, said Phycotransgenics, which operates in about 1,200 square feet of labs where it cultivates its algae, is a good tenant to have.
Other companies at the center have relied on Phycotransgenics' technology and talent at working with single-celled organisms for help on contracts with clients such as the Defense Department.
"It's nice to have tenants with that expertise and (who are) willing to help out for the good of everybody," Long said.
Wagner said algae are sort of the public domain of the plant world: most algal plants are single-celled and their genes are not owned by anyone else.
Companies like Monsanto and DuPont often take out patents on certain genes they' have developed for "higher plant technology" -- corn or soybean plants made more resistant to disease or engineered to produce higher yields.
One of the benefits of algae is simplicity, Wagner said. Of the chloroplasts Phycotransgenics works with, algae each have one; a corn plant can have as many as 100 per cell. Research becomes a "much more challenging task" with more complicated plants, he said.
By introducing a certain protein into the chloroplast of algae, Wagner said, he can make the plants, in effect, grow certain vaccines. Those vaccines can be easily adapted for both humans and industries such as aquaculture, where thousands of fish have to be inoculated against disease.
The process is also cost-effective, he said. Innoculating a fish by hand can cost as much as 50 cents per vaccination. By adding a vaccine to a food source, it costs less than a penny per treatment.
Wagner also said algae make more sense as a source of biofuel than corn or soybeans because they're rich in certain types of oils and using them doesn't bite into the food supply. He estimated he could harvest about 15,000 gallons of biofuel per acre, at a price acceptable to consumers, in about three years.
And in five to 10 years, Wagner hopes to have made more progress with his hydrogen experiments. Working with a lab in Geneva, Switzerland, he and other researchers are developing a way to manipulate the photosynthesis process to make algae produce hydrogen on demand.
"You're actually directly harvesting sunlight and converting it into hydrogen," Wagner said. "It's extremely promising."
Highlights in the history of genetic modification and research:
o 1953 -- Scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick publish an article in Nature that describes the double-helix shape of DNA, often referred to as the basic building blocks of life.
o 1978 -- Louise Brown, the first "test-tube baby," is born in Manchester, England.
o 1982 -- The Food and Drug Administration approves genetically engineered insulin.
o 1986 -- A genetically modified vaccine for hepatitis B is developed.
o 1994 -- The first genetically modified food plants hit the market: Flavr Savr tomatoes, developed by California-based Calgene.
o 1996 -- First mammal cloned, a Scottish sheep named Dolly. Since then, scientists have cloned a horse, a rat and a mule.
o 2001 -- Researchers complete the Human Genome Project, mapping the 25,000 genes that make up human DNA.
Toward a banana-based vaccine for hepatitis B
- Science Daily, May 1, 2007
Bananas have emerged as the best candidate to deliver a bite-sized vaccine for hepatitis B virus (HBV) to millions of people in developing countries, according to an article scheduled for the June 1 issue of ACS' Biotechnology Progress, a bi-monthly journal co-published with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
In the article, India's V. A. Bapat and colleagues update and review worldwide research on efforts to genetically engineer plants as biofactories for the production of vaccines. They focus on transferring genes to produce HBV vaccine, noting that there already are 350 million carriers of hepatitis B worldwide, with 1 million new cases annually. An estimated 75 million -100 million of those infected individuals may die from liver cirrhosis or liver cancer as a result, the article adds.
The authors explain that plant-based production of an oral hepatitis B vaccine has economic and other advantages over the existing injectable vaccine. Researchers so far have successfully engineered several plants -- including banana, potato, lettuce, carrot, and tobacco -- to produce HBV vaccines. They explain why banana appears to be the ideal production and delivery vehicle for HBV vaccine, and the further research and development needed to exploit bananas in the global battle against HBV.
Survey Examines Americans' Trust in Science, Approach to Scientific Issues
- University of Wisconsin, Press release, May 1, 2007
MADISON - When it comes to forming opinions on controversial scientific issues, Americans show a strong deference to the views of the scientific community, according to a study co-authored by a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher.
Dominique Brossard, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says a random survey of 1,500 New York state residents shows they lean heavily on scientists as they form opinions on agricultural biotechnology.
In fact, for many citizens, deference to scientific authority serves as a convenient shortcut that replaces information from mass media or a technical knowledge of issues such as genetically engineered foods.
"We trust scientists to the point that we defer to them," says Brossard, who conducted the study with Matthew C. Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University. "And that raises the question: We want to trust scientists - but do we want citizens to go so far as to blindly defer to experts?"
Brossard says the American educational system is where citizens learn to lean heavily on the scientific community for answers on science policy.
"Transmitted to citizens by the educational system and popular culture, deference to scientific authority means that when science controversies do occur, deference likely generates among Americans an almost natural pro-science or pro-technology view," according to the research, published in the spring 2007 International Journal of Public Opinion Research.
There are factors, however, that compete with Americans' trust in science, she says, including environmental orientations and religious values. For a number of issues, religious perspectives are likely to compete strongly with deference to science - as has been shown in debates over issues such as embryonic stem-cell research and evolution, she notes. But Brossard adds that a green orientation has not become part of the social fabric here as strongly as it has in western Europe.
Brossard says the study raises some concerns for citizens as they weigh scientific issues.
"Let's not forget that technical innovations have not only scientific consequences, but ethical, legal and social implications. It's not necessarily good for citizens to think that scientists should have the final say," she says. "Scientists are good at what they do. But how much trust is too much trust?"
Brossard notes that few citizens have the motivation or ability to go beyond deference toward scientific authority when judging the potential of new technologies. With this in mind, scientists need to make sure the use the trust granted them responsibly when engaging the public on controversial science.
Dominique Brossard and Matthew C. Nisbet, Deference to Scientific Authority Among a Low Information Public: Understanding U.S. Opinion on Agricultural Biotechnology, Int. J. Public Opin. Res., Spring 2007; 19: 24 - 52.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net