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June 20, 2007


GM wheat trials win support; Plastics from Sugar; Salmonella in lettuce


* Plastics from Sugar
* Salmonella in lettuce
* Chance provides some transparency
* USA's use of GM yeast
* GM wheat trials win support
* Monsanto helps seed growers
* Dow, Sangamo Collaborate
* Agriculture in the genomics age


Plastics from Sugar

New catalysts convert glucose into a valuable chemical feedstock

- Prachi Patel-Predd, MIT Technology Review, June 19, 2007


Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have come up with an easy, inexpensive method to directly convert glucose into a chemical that can be used to make polyester and other plastics, industrial chemicals, and even fuels.

Petroleum is commonly used to make plastics and various chemical products, such as fertilizers and solvents. But researchers are trying to find a simple and affordable way to convert the sugars, including glucose and fructose, in plants into compounds that can replace petroleum feedstocks. If successful, such technology could use a chemical made from corn, potatoes, and even grass to substitute for ones derived from oil.

While previous studies have shown various ways to chemically convert fructose and glucose into plastic intermediates and even fuels, these conversion processes are complicated and costly, and are only efficient for converting fructose. Glucose is a much more common sugar because it can be derived directly from starch and cellulose, both plentiful in plant material. "The major bottleneck has been to utilize nature's most abundant building block, which is glucose," says Z. Conrad Zhang, a scientist at PNL's Institute for Interfacial Catalysis, who led the work.

Zhang and his colleagues have developed a catalysis process to transform the sugars into an organic compound called hydroxymethylfurfural, or HMF, which can be converted into polyester and a diesel-like fuel. The technique, which the researchers describe in last week's Science, yields almost 90 percent of HMF from fructose and 70 percent from glucose.

The yield from fructose is similar to that reported in the past by other research groups, Zhang says. But he claims that his process is simpler, involving fewer steps, which would make it more cost-effective. Previous methods use an acidic catalyst, and the chemical reactions take place in a water-based solution, producing high levels of impurities. Instead of an aqueous solution, the PNL researchers use solvents known as ionic liquids, and they use metal chlorides as catalysts. The resulting chemical reaction gives nearly pure HMF, getting rid of the cost of purification, Zhang says.

After trying various metal chlorides, the researchers found that chromium chloride is the best catalyst for glucose. It gets the most HMF from glucose and works at temperatures of 80 C for fructose and 100 C for glucose.

The ability to make HMF directly from glucose and in relatively high yields has caught the attention of some experts. The new technique is a step in the right direction, says Leo Manzer, president of Catalytic Insights, a consulting firm based in Wilmington, DE. "What folks have been looking for is a cheaper feedstock and a good way to make HMF," he says. "This is a very unique, remarkable system that [Zhang] has discovered."

The ultimate goal will be to build an economical reactor that can convert cellulosic biomass, such as grass and plant stalks, into HMF. Zhang says that his research team is already working on a method to utilize cellulose directly. However, he says, the first step will be to develop a commercial process for converting glucose into HMF, and that will take several years.


Food poisoning by Salmonella in lettuce plants can be avoided

- Plant Research International, June 18, 2007


Can lettuce grown on soil infected by Salmonella bacteria itself be infected? Michel Klerks, scientist at Plant Research International, part of Wageningen UR, discovered that Salmonella bacteria spread on the plant as well as within the plant. Internal reproduction and spreading increase the risk of food poisoning through lettuce consumption. Prevention of Salmonella infection in lettuce plants and the application of molecular detection methods during routine screening for pathogens in the food production chain can reduce the risk of food poisoning by eating contaminated fresh leafy vegetables. This is the subject on which Michel Klerks will on 20 June take his doctoral degree at Wageningen University.

Klerks investigated the physiological and molecular interactions between Salmonella bacteria and lettuce varieties. He discovered that Salmonella can actively move to the roots of the lettuce plant. The bacterium then reproduces and spreads itself on the plant. Spreading of the bacterium does not lead to visible differences between healthy and infected soil-grown plants. The natural defence mechanism of lettuce, however, is activated during this process. Interesting fact is that Salmonella was not only found on the plant but also within the plant itself.

In the field lettuce can be infected by using manure contaminated by Salmonella- and E. coli bacteria. Earlier research has shown that the risk of Salmonella infection can be reduced by decreasing the amount of pathogens in dairy cattle manure. This can be achieved by feeding cattle more hay or straw. Breeding new lettuce varieties that are resistant against the pathogens may further reduce the risk of infection. Hygienic measures after harvest are of little use because washing does not remove the bacteria from internally infected vegetables.

In his research Klerks also focussed on the development of more sensitive and more accurate molecular detection methods to determine small numbers of Salmonella bacteria and pathogenic E. coli bacteria. Testing manure or infected soil for the extent of Salmonella and/or E. coli infestation before seedlings are planted out enables a good estimate of the risk of crop contamination. The methods can also be applied after harvest in the routine diagnosis of these pathogens in the food production chain. The analytical time required for testing food products by means of molecular methods is reduced to two days whereas current standard procedures require five days.

The work of Klerks is part of the Wageningen UR research programme headed by Ariena van Bruggen, professor Biological Farming Systems of Wageningen University. The research is financed by the Netherlands STW foundation for technology and the Product Board for Horticulture and is carried out in cooperation between the Biological Farming Systems Group and the Louis Bolk Institute. Prof. Van Bruggen is also the thesis supervisor of Michel Klerks.

On 20 June Michel Klerks will take his doctoral degree at Wageningen University by defending his thesis Quantitive detection of Salmonella enterica and the specific interaction with Lactuca sativa.


WA Minister Chance provides some transparency about GM feeding trials but still coy about protocols.

- GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe, June 20, 2007


In Western Australia today, there was a very lively GMO Reference Group Meeting in the morning, and a few concerns were laid on the line with the Minister, particularly with respect to the Animal Feeding Study by Judy Carman and colleagues in Adelaide.

Among the key points to emerge from the exchange were the following:-

* The Minister refused to disclose the protocol for the feeding study; the list of scientists (local and international) who allegedly approved the protocol; and the members of the review committee who will address milestones. He was reminded that this is his own Ministerial Reference Group; WA taxpayers money is involved; the study never went out to tender; and is not a state mandate anyway given that WA is a signatory to the Inter-governmental Agreement on Gene Technology Regulation wherein Human Health and the Environment are a Federal jurisdiction.

* He was also informed that his action could easily be construed as undermining public confidence in the OGTR and FSANZ, when the independent review of the Gene Technology Act of 2000 has already published its findings (2006) showing that Australia already has one of the most rigorous regulatory systems in the world.

* He was also reminded that going back to December 2005 Professors Graeme Robertson (Muresk/Curtin Univ.); Stephen Powles (UWA); and Mike Jones (Murdoch/SABC) had written to him informing him that Judy Carman could not be seen as independent and she and her group have no track record in conducting animal feeding studies. He was also reminded of international concerns for the study (expressed in writing, and responded to in Parliament); and two letters from AusBiotech (Anna Lavelle / Ian Edwards) expressing concerns, and also (in the case of Ian Edwards' letter) calling for the studies to be halted.

* The Minister made it clear that only when the results of the studies are published in peer-reviewed journals will he release the protocols. He contended that Bayer and Monsanto do not release details of the protocols for studies that they are currently undertaking so why should he? He said that if there is indeed a flaw in the studies then this will also be revealed upon completion! He also explained that since the commissioning of the studies was by approval of Cabinet he was not obliged to go to the tender process. He assured the Group that the studies were taking place in Australia, and specifically in Adelaide.

* When asked whether he really believes that the study will answer the outstanding questions that he thinks the "public" still has in their minds he acknowledged that the study is unlikely to provide these answers and it may in fact raise more questions for future work. He also acknowledged that the amount of funding was very small, but "maybe Judy Carman may have other sources of funding to contribute to the study".

* He further maintained that 'consumers' are confused about the anomalies that have occurred in feeding studies; that our health regulators have a duty of care; and that they have not explained differences in feeding studies to consumers. He further claimed that "only 2 or 3 out of 137 feeding studies presented any details of the protocol involved" and posed the question "Why is there so much unanswered un-answered public information?"

* He was challenged on this, and attention drawn to the "Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plans" prepared by the OGTR in 2003/04 in response to the Bayer and Monsanto canola submissions that received regulatory approval. These documents were then attacked by the NGO members (NCF and Organics). A summary of the key findings of the Bayer Risk Assessment was then given to the Group and I explained that Judy Carman's claims of there being "little or no feeding studies and no allergenicity studies" did not square with the facts. Julie Newman will be seeing Judy Carman tomorrow and will notify her that these "preposterous allegations had been made against her". Julie also informed the meeting that Judy C "has a room full of files on Monsanto at her home". (Editorial note: the two seem to know each other quite well - so much for an independent study!).

* In other business: The Cotton Discussion Paper will go to Cabinet next Monday and, upon release by Cabinet, will go to the public.The Minister agreed the response time be shortened from six to four weeks. The canola discussion paper was addressed - there are clearly going to be major issues (such as legal liability; coexistence, etc), all of which have been well addressed before but the Minister will undoubtedly seek to re-invent the wheel. Trevor de Landgrafft raised a number of issues regarding delaying tactics, and pointed out that a number of the issues are not pertinent to GM crops alone but are part of agriculture in general and asked "what does the Minister feel that he is going to get out of the exercise". The reference group will meet again on the 27th June, and have until close of business this Friday to submit changes to the draft. To give you a flavour of what to expect, this is one of the suggested items from Organic Farming Systems, 43 Brighton Street, Cottesloe:

* Community concerns about the long term effects and socio-economic costs of GM health crisis".

* When Mr Chance was asked directly what he expected to get out of these discussion papers his reply was as follows:

1. Guide Government and Public Opinion; and

2. Determine how much the documents can contribute to the Review of the Act next year.

* Kim Chance concluded by mentioning that he has approved SEPWA's submission for "large-scale GM canola trials" (actually all of 2.2 hectares) in the southeast in 2008.


USA's use of GM yeast prompts wine debate

- Eric Cummins, National GrapeGrowers via North Queensland Register (Australia), June 12, 2007


The first genetically modified wine yeast is now available to winemakers in North America, creating consequent implications for the industry in Australia, including public and political debate on the issue of GM food and beverages.

The first GM wine yeast, known as ML01, has been produced by Springer Oenologie, a division of Lesaffre Yeast Corporation, with the claim that it can complete alcoholic and malolactic fermentations in just five days.

The release of the GM wine yeast is now likely to change what has largely been an academic debate by grapegrowers and winemakers, Australian Wine Research Institute principal molecular biologist Paul Chambers says.

"For the time being, the release of ML01 to the North American market should make little or no difference to what is done in Australia, as this yeast has not been approved for use in this country," he said.

"Whether the Australian wine industry's position on the use of GM organisms in winemaking is likely to change in the foreseeable future depends on the balance between perceived risks and benefits associated with using such yeasts.

"It depends also, on whether local and overseas markets are seen to be ready to accept wines that have been made using GMOs."

Dr Chambers says the use of GMOs in the Australian food chain is one of the most contentious contemporary issues for food and beverage industries.

The emotive term 'frankenfoods' is used by some opponents to conjure images of science and technology creating modified creatures that will wreak havoc.

The other side of the debate argues that GMOs and materials generated by them are safe and can bring many benefits for the environment and the health of humans and animals, with financial benefits for producers and consumers.

Dr Chambers said, "However, even if ML01 was to be approved by Australian authorities for use in this country, public acceptance of GMOs in domestic and overseas markets remains a major hurdle.

"Until the Australian wine industry can be assured of the public's acceptance of GMOs, it should adhere to its position that none are used in the production of wine."


GM wheat trials win support from AWB

- Gregor Heard, FarmOnline (Australia), June 20, 2007


Australia's export wheat marketer, AWB, has lent cautious support to the genetically modified (GM) wheat trials being conducted in Victoria.

AWB previously has been reluctant to endorse any potential GM wheat cultivars in Australia, reflecting concerns about market acceptance of the product.

Unlike GM canola, which has been produced in North America for some time, nowhere in the world is GM wheat grown commercially.

This means the level of potential consumer resistance to the GM product is unknown.

AWB spokesman, Peter McBride, now says, "AWB supports the development of agricultural biotechnology under controlled conditions because of the potential benefits to farmers and the environment."

He said the company was supportive of:

- Plans to keep GM and non-GM products separate.

- Need to ensure there is no contamination that could endanger any markets.

- Need to supply non-GM customers with non-GM wheat, even if GM wheat was grown commercially.

Federal Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran, also has given his blessing to GM wheat trials taking place at Horsham and Mildura in Victoria.

He says research into GM technology is crucial if Australian agriculture is to remain on equal terms with its global competitors.


Monsanto gives sops to seed growers

- The Hindu, June 20, 2007


NANDYAL: Monsanto offered incentive to its seed growers for the second consecutive year for producing cottonseed without involving child labour. Collector M. Dana Kishore, Manufacturing Lead South and North Asia of Monsanto, Ravinder Reddy, and representatives of NGOs attended and disbursed an amount of Rs 1.4 crore to some 4,000 farmers at the rate of Rs 15 a kg over the contracted seed price at a function in Nandyal on Tuesday.

The incentive ranged up to Rs 50,000 each for scores of farmers. Mr. Ravinder Reddy said Monsanto was committed to completely eliminate child labour from its production chain. According to him, 87.5 per cent farmers complied with its norms and became eligible to receive the special incentive.


He said the company could achieve this in a remote place with the cooperation of the seed growers and Bharati Seeds, which motivated them. Monsanto, which started with 300 acres three years ago, increased the size to 4,000 acres involving 3,800 farmers. Nandyal emerged as an important cottonseed manufacturing hub for Monsanto in the country.

Mr. Ravinder Reddy said the company would not stop by simply keeping the children away from farms but offer financial support to the creative learning centres. Also, the company offered an amount of Rs 25,000 for each of three villages which completely eliminated child labour from the Monsanto farms.


Mr. Ravinder Reddy said the farmers who followed the crop management practices could enhance the seed productivity from 400 packets (450 gm each) to 750 packets this year.


Dow Agrosciences, Sangamo Biosciences Announce Collaboration

- Hoosier Ag Today, June 19, 2007


Dow AgroSciences LLC and Sangamo BioSciences, Inc. (Nasdaq: SGMO) have announced the successful completion of research milestones as part of their joint Research and Commercial License Agreement. These milestones represent the successful application of Sangamo's zinc finger DNA-binding protein (ZFP) technology to the generation of specific traits in two major crop species - maize and canola.

"Our collaboration with Sangamo has been extremely positive, and we continue to be very excited by the precision and promise of this technology"," said Dan Kittle, vice president, Research and Development for Dow AgroSciences. "These milestones demonstrate the ability of ZFP Nucleases (ZFNsTM) to act precisely at their intended target in canola and corn, crops of commercial importance, not model systems, and represent the first demonstration of the precise placement of a gene of interest into a specific native gene in maize. This is a development that has potentially significant impact on the cost and timelines of generating crop products with new and improved traits. In addition, Sangamo's technology holds the potential to enable gene editing of native traits and up- and down-regulation of genes to influence metabolic profiles of plants. Everything that we have seen and everything that we have done only reinforces our enthusiasm and commitment to this technology."

"Our ZFP technology can be used to specifically regulate and modify genes," said Philip Gregory, D. Phil., Sangamo's vice president of research. "We have already demonstrated the utility of our ZFN 'genome editing' technology in human cells. Moreover, this technology has the unique advantage of generating the desired trait outcomes without needing to be permanently present in the modified cells. In applying engineered ZFNs to crop plants, Dow AgroSciences scientists have built upon our experience in developing ZFP technology for human therapeutics and accomplished a series of 'scientific firsts.'"

These milestones include the first demonstration of ZFN-mediated targeted integration of DNA into a native gene in maize and the first demonstration of targeting a native gene in canola with ZFNs.

The three-year agreement initiated October 2005, provides Dow AgroSciences with access to Sangamo's proprietary ZFP technology for the development of products in plants and plant cell cultures. During the initial three-year research term, Dow AgroSciences has the option to obtain a commercial license to sell products incorporating or derived from plant cells generated using Sangamo's ZFP technology, including agricultural crops, industrial products and plant-derived biopharmaceuticals.

ZFPs are the dominant class of naturally occurring transcription factors in organisms from yeast to humans. Transcription factors, which are found in the nucleus of every cell, bind to DNA to regulate gene expression. The ability to selectively control specific genes is emerging as a critical tool in modern biotechnology. Though there are many kinds of transcription factors, only ZFPs are amenable to engineering and precise targeting to a particular gene or genes of interest. By engineering ZFPs that recognize a specific DNA sequence Sangamo scientists have created ZFP transcription factors (ZFP TFs) that can control gene expression and consequently, cell function. For example, Sangamo has demonstrated that plant oils can be improved using ZFP TFs.

Sangamo has also developed sequence-specific ZFNs for precision gene modification and targeted gene insertion. These technologies have the potential to play a major role in bringing new discoveries in genomics forward to the marketplace. The use of Sangamo's ZFP technology to enable the efficient and reproducible generation of combinations or stacks of multiple traits and the insertion of new traits could address increasing demand.


Commentary: Agriculture in the genomics age

- Stewart Truelsen, California Farm Bureau Federation, June 20, 2007


Two of the hottest areas of science and technology today involve agriculture--the genomic mapping of plant and animal species and the transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels.

What does this say about the future of U.S. agriculture? For starters, agriculture is right at the forefront of important research and stands to benefit tremendously.

While genomics (the study of genes and their functions) and renewable fuels are two distinct fields, there are some connections. At Iowa State University, a $1.25 million IBM supercomputer labeled BlueGene is being used to sequence the corn genome.

The genome is a complete set of an organism's genetic material--the sum total of all the information in cells that determines whether we are human or a corn plant. All that information is derived from studying the arrangement of DNA and genes.

Even with the aid of this supercomputer, it will take scientists about three years to sequence the corn genome. The results could lead to the development of corn varieties that yield more ethanol or produce better biodegradable plastics or tolerate drought better.

Iowa State researchers consider the corn genome one of the most complex sequencing projects to date. In 2005, the rice genome was mapped and projects are under way to sequence soybeans and sheep.

One of the most recent announcements was a project to map the swine genome. Two University of Illinois researchers will head it up, and like the Iowa State project, it is a collaborative effort with researchers at other universities.

Mapping the swine genome will lead to better animal health and management and more nutritious meat products, but it could yield much more. According to the University of Illinois, "Because the pig and human genomes are similar in size, complexity and organization, researchers expect comparisons will lead to biomedical advances, including pig-to-human transplants and disease treatments."

Obviously, genomics brings up a number of moral and ethical questions that must be dealt with, many of them concerning the use of information from the human genome which was sequenced a few years ago. Most people would agree that human cloning is off-limits. But genomics could lead to cures for cancer and heart disease and will probably be the key to humans living much longer.

In agriculture, we have witnessed the reluctance of the European Union to accept biotech crops while the United States and most of the rest of the world recognize their value to producers and consumers.

The genomics age is here, whether some like it or not. And, any effort to impede potential benefits that genomics offers humankind--from more and better food to breakthroughs in health and life-saving medicine--should raise moral and ethical questions that are even more serious than those surrounding the science itself.

(Stewart Truelsen is a consultant to the American Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at stut@fb.org.)

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