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Date:

May 23, 2007

Subject:

BIO Approves Product Stewardship Policy; Tomato yellow leaf curl detected in Calif.; Farmers Looking for 'Ethanol Effect'; Researchers discover 'radiation-eating' fungi

 

Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org, May 23, 2007

* Bt seeds to gain half of India's cotton area
* Modern biotechnology provides foundation for enhancing crops
* GM foods offer a rosy future
* BIO Approves Product Launch Stewardship Policy
* Tomato yellow leaf curl detected in Calif.
* Farmers Looking for a Lift From 'Ethanol Effect'
* Einstein researchers discover 'radiation-eating' fungi
* Reader says article overstates reality

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Bt seeds to gain half of India's cotton area

- The Financial Express (India), May 23, 2007

http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=164938

The total area under cotton in India, the world's third largest producer, may see little change in 2007/08, but genetically modified varieties would account for half of it, a trade body official said on Tuesday. Kishorilal Jhunjhunwala, president of the East India Cotton Association, told Reuters the crop had covered 9.1 million hectare in 2006/07, with good yield and prices.

Thus, farmers would have little incentive to shift to any other crop now. "Any kind of change in area will not be more than 5% down," he told Reuters over the telephone.

The last year was marked by a sharp rise in productivity, with cotton yield rising to 500 kg per hectare, largely aided by adoption of BT cotton, Jhunjhunwala said. Bio-engineered cotton covered 35% of total area. Based on technology from seed giant Monsanto Co, BT cotton helps fight boll worms, a major worry for Indian farmers. However, it has faced stiff opposition from environmental groups who claim such products deplete bio-diversity.

"Whether people like or dislike, the BT system is accepted by Indian farmers," Jhunjhunwala said predicting BT cotton could cover as much as 80% of area within two years. Jhunjhunwala said, "farmers are very happy with cotton prices and productivity. But I don't think farmers will shift towards cotton from other crops or towards other crops from cotton." An official with the government in Maharashtra state, which accounts for the nation's largest area under the crop, concurred with that view. "Farmers are aggressively buying Bt cotton seeds, certainly there will be increase in area under Bt," the official, who declined to be named, said. But a farmer activist in Maharashtra, where 1,448 impoverished farmers killed themselves in 2006 to escape the burden of debt, said the growth in BT cotton area resulted from intense marketing and shortage of normal hybrid seeds.

"When seed distributors say they don't have hybrid seeds, farmers have no option but to buy BT cotton," Kishore Tiwari, president of farmer group Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, said. Indian trade officials estimate the country's cotton production will go up to 27 million bales in year to September 2007, up 11% from year ago.

Jhunjhunwala said cotton farmers would not be distracted by the high prices for oilseeds and pulses. "I don't think farmers will shift towards cotton from other crops or towards other crops from cotton." Jhunjhunwala said India's total cotton export in the cotton year ending September would cross four million bales.

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Modern biotechnology provides foundation for enhancing crops

- Becky Varner, The Oklahoman, May 23, 2007

http://newsok.com/article/3057222

Traditional biotechnology started thousands of years ago as farmers learned to grow plants with desirable traits such as higher yields, better taste and more resistance to drought.

Through the years, farmers replanted seeds or cross-pollinated from their best crops. They would continue to select grains until a plant with more desirable traits emerged. This process took lots of time and was sometimes unpredictable.

Today, modern biotechnology offers more precise and faster methods to establish improved foods that are abundant, tasty, safe and nutritious.

As scientists learned more about DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic coding in living things, that knowledge has been applied to growing produce. This is simply applying plant genetics and science to improving our food quality and production. These advances in produce production are sometimes referred to as genetically modified food or "GM food."

Agricultural scientists can select specific genes in produce that carry specific traits such as better nutrient quality or disease resistance to grow more desirable produce. A single gene from an unrelated plant can be transferred to another plant. Scientists also can remove a specific gene to delete undesirable traits in produce.

There are multiple benefits of modern food biotechnology. One benefit is healthier and higher yielding crops. This can mean lower production costs for the farmer. An example is the enhancement of some varieties of corn to contain a common soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This allows the corn to protect itself from some insects that can destroy plants and that can reduce the use of insecticides. Other crops are being developed to resist plant viruses and other diseases. Plants naturally have the ability to produce compounds to protect against invading organisms. Natural toxins are found in many foods, and scientists can identify the genes that produce natural toxins.

Another benefit of genetically improved crops is weather-resistance. This can enable some crops to withstand severe weather, extending the growing season and growing regions to make more fruits, vegetables and grains available throughout the year. Regions with poor soil conditions or poor climates can become productive agriculture land. This can also reduce crop loss for farmers. Food biotechnology can develop ways for more food to be grown on less land.

Transferring specific genetic traits in plants can produce fruits and vegetables with ripening qualities that allow them to be shipped farther and longer without spoilage for the arrival of fresher produce with better flavor. Produce can also be grown to resist mold. Modern food technology could make foods safer by detection of food-borne bacteria and viruses. This could result in a decline of food-borne illness.

Some vegetable oils have been enhanced to have less saturated and more monounsaturated fatty acids. Soybeans, canola and other seeds providing oil have been enhanced to have less saturated fat and more oleic acid, is a beneficial fatty acid.

Modern food biotechnology can allow for more advanced crossbreeding of foods, yielding new varieties of foods. An example seen in grocery stores in recent years is Broccoflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower that results in a light green cauliflower. You may have seen miniature foods such as a tiny bunch of bananas, smaller pineapples and baby ears of corn.

Products developed through food biotechnology are subjected to the same stringent standards of labeling and safety by the Food and Drug Administration as all foods sold in the United States. These foods are tested and regulated. Evaluation methods used by manufacturers to ensure safety for consumers are endorsed internationally by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Foods developed through biotechnology have the same food labels as other foods; in some cases, additional labeling is required.

Food biotechnology is developing in many parts of the world and offers great promise for feeding the world. There are many potential benefits of food biotechnology, and as research continues, more benefits will be discovered. Food biotechnology is an approach for producing a high-quality, abundant, healthful and less expensive food supply for the world and for protecting the environment. Nutrient-enhanced crops could help address problems of malnutrition in various parts of the world.

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GM foods offer a rosy future

- John Roskam, The Age (Australia), May 23, 2007

http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/gm-foods-offer-a-rosy-future/2007/05/22/1179601407663.html?page=fullpage#

We should not allow fear to vanquish the possibilities of scientific advance, writes John Roskam.

PENICILLIN wouldn't exist if we had the same attitude to pharmaceuticals as we do to genetically modified food. One of the arguments against GM food is that genetic engineering is somehow "unnatural". Yet creating antibiotics to take as medicine is just as "unnatural" as manipulating the genes of plants to produce food.

Penicillin has dramatically improved the quality of life of the people who are lucky enough to have access to it. GM food could have the same beneficial impact. GM crops need less pesticide, use less water and require less fertiliser than conventional crops. GM food can make up for the vitamin deficiency of the world's malnourished. While the use of penicillin is taken for granted, growing GM crops is prohibited in Victoria.

What is "unnatural" is in the eye of the beholder. There's nothing unnatural about using science and human ingenuity to make our lives better. What would be unnatural is if we denied ourselves the advantages of science because of an unfounded concern about the unknown.

The State Government's ban on GM food will expire at the beginning of next year. Quite appropriately, the Government has announced that before a decision on whether the ban will continue or be lifted, there will be public consultation. That consultation will reveal two things about the GM debate.

The first is the widespread misunderstanding about the subject.

The second is that much of the resistance to GM food is not based on science. Instead, it is the product of opposition to multinational companies and their role in the supply and marketing of GM technology.

Despite the ban on GM crops, we already consume genetically modified food. Thirty-five per cent of the vegetable oil consumed in this country is from GM cottonseed, most of which is grown in Queensland.

GM technology doesn't threaten Victoria's clean and green image. One of the motivations behind the original GM ban was the concern that if GM crops were grown in the state, Victorian food exports to non-GM countries would be threatened. The reality is that both Canada and the United States have GM crops and none of their markets has been affected.

In other countries, both organic and GM crops are cultivated and marketed successfully. All the evidence is that the consumers actually like having the choice between organic food, GM food and food grown as it is now.

The claim that GM organisms might escape and infect non-GM animals and plants is scare-mongering. Sensible precautions are necessary when growing GM food.

Opponents of GM crops protest that GM technology is a profit-driven enterprise. There's one simple answer to that accusation. Of course it is. All food production is profit-driven. Dairy farmers don't produce the milk that we pour on our morning cereal out of the goodness of their hearts. GM is a big business and developing GM technology is expensive. Naturally anyone who invests in GM wants to make a profit. The search for profit encourages innovation. The profit incentive encouraged the great figures of Australian agriculture such as

H. V. McKay who invented the Sunshine Harvester and William Farrer who developed Federation wheat. Thanks to Farrer's wheat-breeding discoveries, the yield from the national wheat crop at the beginning of the 20th century was more than doubled.

Another complaint is that many patents for GM technology are owned and controlled by "multinational agribusiness companies". This is true - but it's irrelevant to the question of whether GM crops should be grown in Victoria. Farmers themselves are in the best position to know what is in their own best interests.

The patents to the computer software packages used by farmers to manage their business are also owned by multinational companies. No one is suggesting that farmers should not be allowed to use these computer programs.

Our farmers would not be among the world's best if the only technology they had access to was that owned by other Australians.

Victorian Labor MP Tammy Lobato has warned that the introduction of GM crops "would mean the end of agriculture as we know it". And she's right. Agriculture is continuously changing and every year the process of farming is different from the year before.

GM technology is an improvement that should be welcomed - not feared.

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John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.

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Biotechnology Industry Approves Product Launch Stewardship Policy

New Forward-Looking Policy Statement Encourages Industry Members to Minimize the Potential for Trade Disruptions from Agricultural Biotechnology Products

- Biotechnology Industry Organization (press release), May 21, 2007

http://www.bio.org/news/newsitem.asp?id=2007_0521_01

Washington, D.C. - The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) today announced a new forward-looking policy statement that will encourage BIO's Food and Agriculture members to help facilitate the flow of goods in commerce and minimize the potential for trade disruptions with respect to products of agricultural biotechnology. The Product Launch Stewardship Policy addresses the issue of asynchronous authorizations - where different countries may approve, deregulate or authorize biotech crop varieties at different times. Such variance in regulatory authorizations among trading partners can potentially disrupt trade and commerce of grain products.

Under the new policy, BIO is encouraging its members in its Food and Agriculture Section to seek the appropriate regulatory authorizations from major countries - including the United States, Canada, and Japan - prior to commercializing a new biotech-derived crop.

"Approval of the Product Launch Stewardship Policy is a significant forward-looking action by BIO's Food and Agriculture Section Governing Body," said Jim Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of BIO. "It demonstrates that BIO is committed to doing our part to promote the continued safety and trust in the world's food supply, and to help support smooth trade transactions in the international grain community."

The Product Launch Stewardship Policy is an extension of domestic and international efforts to develop and advocate for an adventitious presence (AP) policy. Over the last several years, BIO and its members have continually urged U.S. regulatory agencies to implement a science-based policy that governs incidental or trace amounts - or so-called adventitious presence - of biotechnology-enhanced events in raw and processed grains and oilseeds, as well as food and feed. While adventitious presence is a natural part of plant biology, seed production, and the distribution of commodity crops, a science-based policy would support continued food safety for consumers, farmers, food processors, and grain handlers. In 2006, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced their policies on adventitious presence; in March 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its interim policy on adventitious presence. Additionally, Codex Alimentarius, the international food standards-setting body, has begun work to develop an international food safety standard for adventitious presence.

"The Food and Agriculture Section Governing Body felt that it needed to approve a prospective policy statement that demonstrates strong support for the international trade system and its improvement," said Andrew Baum, president of SemBioSys, Inc., Chair of the Food and Agriculture Section Governing Body, and Vice Chair and Secretary of BIO's Board of Directors. "We believe the approval of this Product Launch Stewardship Policy demonstrates our understanding of the concerns grain handlers, exporters, and foreign governments may have about new biotech-derived crops, and it illustrates our organization's continued commitment to promoting good product stewardship and responsible use of this technology."

In addition to encouraging authorizations in the United States, Canada, and Japan prior to commercialization, the Product Launch Stewardship Policy also encourages companies to consult with grain handlers and others in the value chain, follow best seed quality practices, as well as develop detection methods for growers, grain producers, processors, and buyers. Finally, it encourages BIO members to promptly communicate broadly and in a transparent manner with stakeholders their company-specific product launch stewardship policies and their implementation.

Founded in 1993, BIO represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and 31 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of health-care, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products. BIO produces the BIO International Convention, the world's largest gathering of the biotechnology industry.

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Tomato yellow leaf curl, an insect-borne virus that kills tomato plants, is detected in Calif.

- Laura Kurtzman, Associated Press via 7KTVB.com, May 22, 2007

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/T/TOMATO_VIRUS?SITE=KTVB&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

SACRAMENTO -- An insect-borne virus that has killed tomato plants across Central America, Florida and Georgia has been detected in California for the first time.

The virus, known as tomato yellow leaf curl, devastated crops in the Dominican Republican and in Mexico, forcing those countries to curtail the growing season to contain the spread of the disease.

Tomatoes are California's eighth largest crop. The state supplies the vast majority of the nation's processed tomatoes - 95 percent, according to the California Tomato Growers Association.

In Arkansas, federal statistics show about 1,200 acres of tomatoes were harvested last year.

"Where this virus is present, it will absolutely kill the tomatoes," said Ross Siragusa, president of the association, which represents farmers who supply the state's $2 billion a year processed tomato industry. "It's a very difficult disease to fight."

California has some natural advantages in stopping the disease from spreading that other locales lack.

The cold, wet winters in the Central Valley, where most tomatoes are grown, act as barriers to the bemisia white flies that carry the disease. The flies are native to Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties in the southern part of the state, but not to any counties in the Central Valley.

"We're cautiously optimistic that those conditions are going to be very unfavorable to establishment of the virus," said Robert Gilbertson, a plant pathologist at the University of California, Davis.

The diseased plants were found in March at a greenhouse in Brawley, which is near the border with Mexico. Experts do not know how the virus spread there. It could have been brought by tomato transplants from Mexico or Texas. Or the virus could have been carried by bemisia flies.

The virus causes tomato plants to become stunted and grow abnormally upright. Flowers usually fall off before the fruit sets. And leaves are small and crumpled with an upward curl. They also turn yellow.

Experts say growers or backyard gardeners who detect the disease should destroy the infected plants and look for the flies. If bemesia flies are present, the disease is likely to be spreading fast, and the entire field may have to be destroyed and treated with insecticide. Nearby weeds also can carry the virus and may have to be sprayed.

In Florida, where the virus has become well established, Gilbertson said growers have had to make heavy use of pesticides and have planted tomato varieties that are more resistant to the disease. But flies may become resistant to the pesticides over time.

Siragusa said his group has alerted growers, greenhouses and seed companies that the virus has spread to California. But, he said, controlling the virus will be especially hard because so many tomatoes are grown in backyards.

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AgBioView readers may find the following two items of interest:

Transgenic Tomato Plants Expressing the Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus Capsid Protein are Resistant to the Virus

- Talya Kunik, et. al., Nature Bio/Technology 12, 500 - 504 (1994) doi:10.1038/nbt0594-500

http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v12/n5/abs/nbt0594-500.html

The tomato yellow leaf curl virus(TYLCV) gene that encodes the capsid protein (VI) was placed under transcriptional control of the cauliflower mosaic virus 35S promoter and cloned into an Agrobacterium Ti-derived plasmid and used to transform plants from an interspecific tomato hybrid, Lycopersicon esculentum X L. pennellii (F1), sensitive to the TYLCV disease. When transgenic F1 plants, expressing the V1 gene, were inoculated with TYLCV using whiteflies fed on TYLCV-infected plants, they responded either as untransformed tomato or showed expression of delayed disease symptoms and recovery from the disease with increasingly more resistance upon repeated inoculation. Transformed plants that were as sensitive to inoculation as untransformed controls expressed the V1 gene at the RNA level only. All the transformed plants that recovered from disease expressed the TYLCV capsid protein.

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Transgenic plants resistant to geminivirus infection

- United States Patent 6,087,162, July 11, 2000

http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=6087162.PN.&OS=PN/6087162&RS=PN/6087162

Abstract

A method for producing genetically transgenic plants exhibiting resistance to a geminivirus such as tomato yellow leaf curl virus. In another aspect, the invention embraces chimeric plant genes, cassettes containing the chimeric plant genes, heterologous DNA segments containing the cassettes, and genetically transgenic cells and differentiated plants which exhibit resistance to geminiviruses. In yet another aspect, the invention embraces bacterial cells and plant transformation vectors comprising a heterologous DNA segment encoding for resistance to geminiviruses.

Inventors: Braun, III; Carl Joseph (Woodland, CA)

Assignee: Seminis Vegetable Seeds, Inc. (Saticoy, CA)

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Farmers Looking for a Lift From 'Ethanol Effect'

- Neels Blom, Business Day (Johannesburg), May 23, 2007

http://allafrica.com/stories/200705230152.html

AGRICULTURAL economists call it the ethanol effect: an increase in world maize prices based on an increase in the demand for energy, which they say will ensure the future of agriculture in SA.

Although the government is incorporating biofuels into its energy and agricultural policies, ethanol distillation from maize feedstock to supply motor fuel has yet to be undertaken on a large scale in SA.

Nevertheless, the ethanol effect rescued SA's maize farmers from a drought disaster this past season, demonstrating beyond doubt how closely local farming is associated with world commodity markets and the energy industry in the US. It reverberates throughout the agricultural economy because maize, as animal feed and as a ubiquitous ingredient in modern diets, is at the core of farming in SA.

This year's mid-season drought damaged much of SA's maize harvest, particularly in the eastern dryland growing areas, resulting in a downward crop estimate from 11-million tons to about 7,5-million tons. At a break-even price of about R750 a ton, many drought-affected farmers would not have attained the volumes needed to achieve profitability, but maize prices rose sharply on the JSE's futures exchange, Safex, this year, touching highs of close to R2000 a ton.

Even at low yields, this more than made up for crop losses, crop financiers say, and irrigation farmers made a killing.

We were, in fact, at the beginning of a new growth phase in agriculture, Ernst Janovsky, the head of agriculture at First National Bank (FNB), told farmers at the National Maize Producers' Organisation's harvest day celebration in Bothaville, Free State, last week. "Bear in mind that we are in a drought trough and commodity prices for coarse grain and sugar are expected to increase substantially," he said. Net farm income, though vulnerable to price volatility, would continue to improve.

Janovsky, who is one of a few South African agricultural economists prepared to make a long-term forecast for the farming business, bases his projection on an acceptance that the world grain price is moving towards its oil-equivalent value. He says a crude oil price of $75-$80 a barrel makes the production of biofuel a viable prospect -- and it is certain that oil prices will increase to these levels.

Janovsky acknowledges the difficult climatic conditions in SA but says advances in genetically modified organisms will drive the new growth in agriculture.

While he admits that "no one knows where biotechnology is taking us", the fact is that farmers are in a cost squeeze, where input costs rise faster than farm-gate prices. That means farmers will continue to adopt any form of technology to boost productivity.

"The white coats are winning the war against the green coats," says Janovsky.

Rather controversially, he says crop farmers are likely to be beneficiaries of "carbon-friendly" legislation, because plants extract carbon from the atmosphere.

His assertion, however, does not fully take into account the carbon emissions produced by the cultivation of grain and its transportation to markets. Neither does it account for other environmental legislation that may affect the application of fertilisers and pesticides.

A global desire to curb carbon emissions -- at the heart of the belated and limited concessions by the US to reduce carbon emissions where this coincides with cutting its dependence on imported crude oil -- seems certain to produce proscriptive legislation. But global warming also seems to be a certainty, which will worsen the climate for farming.

Janovsky's forecast is a bold one, considering that the contribution from agriculture to SA's gross domestic product has shrunk through three successive quarters to less than 2%. The opening of SA's agricultural produce to the open market has also meant that the country's marginal growing conditions make maize production uncompetitive, save perhaps for the extraordinary skill of local farmers.

Janovsky is in august company in his assessments. The eminent agricultural economist and environmental thinker Lester Brown, among many others, is reported as saying that at oil prices from $75-$80 a barrel, the price of grain will be set by the price of oil. That means if at any time the food value of a commodity is less than its fuel value, the market will move that commodity into the fuel economy and prices will rise and fall proportionately to oil's price fluctuations.

Already, North America has experienced a foretaste of how the social effect of maize-to-ethanol price increases affect the marginalised members of society. When the price of corn (maize) rose beyond the means of poor people in Mexico in January, riots erupted across much of the country, prompting free trade stalwart President Felipe Calderon to force producers to sign an agreement to fix corn prices.

The US response to President George Bush's call for a reduction of that country's dependence on imported crude oil has been to start building as many maize-ethanol distilleries as possible. The ethanol capacity of the distilleries now under construction in the US's midwest equals that of all the US stills built over the past 26 years. At completion they will consume about 140- million tons of maize a year, or more than a third of the US maize harvest.

The problem, Brown told Foreign Policy magazine this year, is that there is no agency or office to regulate the competition between the two groups competing for maize: the 2-billion of the poorest people who spent half their income on food, and the 800-million who drive cars.

The question South African farmers need answered is whether the expected increase in demand for grain and the subsequently sustained higher prices will adequately compensate for the country's climatic constraints on competitiveness.

Advances in biotechnology and farmers' skill at coaxing carbohydrates from an unyielding soil are not uniquely South African and are unlikely to be a competitive advantage for long in a world that is growing hotter and drier.

Janovsky is confident that commercial farmers in SA are competitive enough to benefit from the ethanol effect and although he expects "a bumpy ride in the beginning", he says producers who adopt precision farming will succeed.

Precision farms are typically large-scale, capital-intensive enterprises -- the kind that attract the attention of financiers such as First National Bank -- and precisely the opposite of the small-scale and subsistence operations envisaged in the government's plan for rural economic development.

The future, it seems, will come for some farmers and it will come at the high maize price determined by the ethanol effect but, as Janovsky puts it, small-scale and subsistence farming will invariably fail.

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Vic dairy industry reconsiders GM opposition

- ABC Rural (Australia), May 23, 2007

http://www.abc.net.au/rural/news/content/2006/s1931061.htm

The Victorian dairy industry is reconsidering its strident opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops as the State Government plans to review its GM ban.

The Government has appointed an independent panel to consider the moratorium, which is due to expire in February next year.

The Australian Dairy Industry Council (ADIC) has developed its own draft policy on GM feed and crops and policy director Robert Poole has not ruled out supporting an end to the GM ban.

"By definition that's what the draft policy implies, that if farmer A is going to have the choice to grow it and farmer B is going to have the choice not to, then as long as there are enough safeguards in the system, as long as our companies are working on our behalf to protect our markets, then we think all that can work," he said.

"If the farmers take a different view across the board or the companies take a different view across the board, then that policy won't get up."

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Einstein researchers' discover 'radiation-eating' fungi

Finding could trigger recalculation of Earth's energy balance and help feed astronauts

- Albert Einstein College of Medicine (press release), May 22, 2007

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-05/aeco-erd051607.php

Scientists have long assumed that fungi exist mainly to decompose matter into chemicals that other organisms can then use. But researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have found evidence that fungi possess a previously undiscovered talent with profound implications: the ability to use radioactivity as an energy source for making food and spurring their growth.

"The fungal kingdom comprises more species than any other plant or animal kingdom, so finding that they're making food in addition to breaking it down means that Earth's energetics - in particular, the amount of radiation energy being converted to biological energy - may need to be recalculated," says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of microbiology & immunology at Einstein and senior author of the study, published May 23 in PLoS ONE.

The ability of fungi to live off radiation could also prove useful to people: "Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food source on long missions or for colonizing other planets," says Dr. Ekaterina Dadachova, associate professor of nuclear medicine and microbiology & immunology at Einstein and lead author of the study.

Those fungi able to "eat" radiation must possess melanin, the pigment found in many if not most fungal species. But up until now, melanin's biological role in fungi - if any--has been a mystery.

"Just as the pigment chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy that allows green plants to live and grow, our research suggests that melanin can use a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum - ionizing radiation - to benefit the fungi containing it," says Dr. Dadachova.

The research began five years ago when Dr. Casadevall read on the Web that a robot sent into the still-highly-radioactive damaged reactor at Chernobyl had returned with samples of black, melanin-rich fungi that were growing on the reactor's walls. "I found that very interesting and began discussing with colleagues whether these fungi might be using the radiation emissions as an energy source," says Dr. Casadevall.

To test this idea, the Einstein researchers performed a variety of in vivo tests using three genetically diverse fungi and four measures of cell growth. The studies consistently showed that ionizing radiation significantly enhances the growth of fungi that contain melanin.

For example, two types of fungi--one that was induced to make melanin (Crytococcus neoformans) and another that naturally contains it (Wangiella dermatitidis) - were exposed to levels of ionizing radiation approximately 500 times higher than background levels. Both species grew significantly faster (as measured by the number of colony forming units and dry weight) than when exposed to standard background radiation.

The researchers also carried out physico-chemical studies into melanin's ability to capture radiation. By measuring the electron spin resonance signal after melanin was exposed to ionizing radiation, they showed that radiation interacts with melanin to alter its electron structure. This is an essential step for capturing radiation and converting it into a different form of energy to make food.

Dr. Casadevall notes that the melanin in fungi is no different chemically from the melanin in our skin. "It's pure speculation but not outside the realm of possibility that melanin could be providing energy to skin cells," he says. "While it wouldn't be enough energy to fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid."

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Reader says article overstates reality

- Alex Avery, High Plains Journal, May 23, 2007

http://www.hpj.com/archives/2007/may07/may21/Readersaysarticleoverstates.cfm

There was an inaccurate statement in the recent article informing about the registry for pesticide-sensitive and organic crops. The press release from the Kansas Department of Agriculture on which the story was based stated that, "organic growers could lose their USDA certified organic status if any type of pesticide, including insecticides and fungicides, are detected in their crops."

This vastly overstates reality. The operative word there is "could," because there are only two ways for a crop to lose organic certification. One is if pesticide residues exceed 5 percent of the EPA-established maximum residue limit for that pesticide on that particular crop. The other is if the farmer deliberately applies an organically-prohibited pesticide. Both assume residue testing that most often isn't conducted. The USDA rules do not require any pesticide residue testing.

And all should realize the overstatement of "any type of pesticide," because organic farmers are allowed to use numerous residue-producing pesticides, such as pyrethrum, sabadilla, petroleum oil, and neem, as well as synthetic toxins like copper sulfate and tetracycline.

When science allows us to cheaply and rapidly detect DNA and chemicals at mind boggling low concentrations (parts per trillion or less, or one second in 32,000 years!), the registry for pesticide sensitive crops/neighbors is a welcome program that will hopefully promote more peaceful coexistence among nearby farms and far-separated farm philosophies.

--Alex Avery, Director of Research, Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute, Churchville, Va.

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