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July 18, 2007


Borlaug's Revolution; National Medal for Federoff; Space watermelons are ready


* Borlaug's Revolution
* The Gene of the Crop
* Indonesia to Use GM to Boost Food
* Mexico Setting Rules on GM Corn
* Top U.S. prize to Nina Fedoroff
* Disease-free mosquito and disease-free progeny
* Space watermelons ready to harvest
* Biosafety Diploma by Distance Learning


Borlaug's Revolution

- Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2007; Page A16


In 1944, when Norman Borlaug arrived in Mexico, the nation was in the grip of crop failure. Cereals like wheat are dietary staples. But in Mexico, an airborne fungus was causing an epidemic of "stem rust," and acreage once flush with golden wheat and maize yielded little more than sunbaked sallow weeds. Coupled with a population surge, famine seemed in the offing.

Dr. Borlaug left Mexico in 1963 with a harvest six times what it was when he arrived. From acres of arable land sprung a hyperactive strain of wheat engineered by the scientist in his laboratory, fertilized and nurtured according to his methods, and irrigated by systems he helped to design. Mexico's peasantry was not only fed -- it was selling wheat on the international market. [Norman Borlaug]

The reversal of the Mexican crop disaster was an early tiding of the Green Revolution. Over the next 30 years, Dr. Borlaug devoted himself to the undeveloped world, undoing crop failure in India and Pakistan, and rescuing rice in the Philippines, Indonesia and China. He has arguably saved more lives than anyone in history. Maybe one billion.

Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, yet his name remains largely unknown. Today, at age 93, he receives the Congressional Gold Medal. Perhaps it will secure the fame he merits but never pursued. Then again, perhaps not. While Dr. Borlaug was expanding human possibility, his critics -- who held humanity to be profligate and the Earth's resources finite -- were receiving all the attention. They still are.

The most famous may be Paul Ehrlich, a biologist who declared in the 1960s that "the battle to feed all of humanity" was lost. "In the 1970s and 1980s," he claimed, "hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." In 1973, Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and still widely quoted today, said the demand for food had "outrun the productive capacity of the world's farmers." The only solution? "We're going to have to restructure the global economy." Of course.

Greenpeace and other pessimists were scandalized at Dr. Borlaug's Green Revolution; it disproved their admonitions and, worst of all, led to industrial development. They even convinced the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to stop funding Dr. Borlaug's efforts. We see these battle lines today in the energy wars. History has its share of tragedy, but Dr. Borlaug's life demonstrates that environmental doomsayers are almost always wrong because they overlook one variable: human ingenuity.

The late economist Julian Simon was in the habit of claiming that natural resources are basically infinite. His refrain: "A higher price represents an opportunity that leads inventors and businesspeople to seek new ways to satisfy the shortages. Some fail, at cost to themselves. A few succeed, and the final result is that we end up better off than if the original shortage problems had never arisen."

As anti-development environmentalists preach the gospel of limits and state coercion, here is a question worth asking: How many millions of people might have perished had Norman Borlaug heeded their teachings?


The Gene of the Crop

A new study shows that some genetically modified crops might be better for the environment than those treated with pesticides.

- Susan Cosier, Plenty Magazine, July 17, 2007


For many farmers, the tried-and-true method to ridding their crops of insects is to spray the fields with chemical pesticides. Yet an increasing number of farmers who grow cotton and corn are turning to genetically modified plants that kill pests with the help of a bacterium gene. New research suggests that the gene may even be better for the environment than traditional methods of pest control.

A review of previous research (a meta-analysis), published in the journal Science last month, looked at 42 studies of cotton and corn crops genetically modified with an insecticide gene called Bt. Individually, the studies were too small to adequately determine significant effects; but collectively, researchers found that plant fields with the inserted Bt gene actually have more bugs than fields where farmers sprayed pesticides. Rather than killing all the bugs in the field as pesticides do, the Bt gene targets specific species. Although fields that didn't use pesticides or GM crops displayed the most bug biodiversity, the study showed that Bt crops don't require as many harmful pesticides that leach into soil and pollute lakes and streams.

"We were really just trying to lay out what are the pros and what are the potential cons," of Bt crops on invertebrates like bees and earthworms that the gene doesn't target, says Michelle Marvier, a biologist from Santa Clara University and the primary researcher for the study.

For the last 10 years, companies have been introducing the Bt gene into crops, largely to eliminate a caterpillar that eats corn stalks. Since then, many people - including some environmental groups like Greenpeace - have protested against GM crops, arguing that they could decrease biodiversity and harm human health. But for scientists aware of the benefits of Bt crops, this study "really confirms a lot of studies that have been done since these plants came out," says Tony Shelton, a professor of entomology at Cornell University who was not involved in the study.

But Bt crops may pose a problem to people opposed to eating GM foods. The inserted genes could transfer to non-GM crops through natural pollination, especially as more and more farmers plant modified seeds. But what people may not realize is that many of the vegetables we eat have been modified for centuries, says Steve Naranjo, an entomologist at the US Department of Agriculture's Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center who was on a working group that reviewed the paper. "Native corn doesn't look anything like what's growing through the Midwest," he says. Adding a single gene to a plant is "a lot less Frankenstein than you might think." He also acknowledges that the debate can be more emotional than scientific.

Marvier says she knows that the meta-analysis only scratches the surface and Bt crops may have effects on other animals and the agricultural environment. It might take many more studies to convince the public that some GM crops aren't bad for biodiversity.

To aid further research, scientists involved in the analysis compiled a database of many studies on Bt crops, so anyone can access them. The database now includes more than 170 studies. "The authors of this have done a real service to the scientific community," says Naranjo. "There's just a lot of value in the database that I think will keep people busy for a long time."

Although the study's conclusion provides validation of Bt crops for some researchers, scientific information alone may not be enough to end the controversy for the general public. Still, scientists continue to gather data about the environmental benefits of using Bt crops as a biological control. "There are activists who can raise questions," says Shelton. "But from a scientific standpoint, I don't think there's any question that Bt plants have been a great advantage for our environment."


Indonesia Says to Use GMO to Boost Food Output

- Reuters via PlanetArk, July 18, 2007


JAKARTA - Indonesia plans to use genetically modified crops to boost food staples such as rice, soybean and corn once a draft law is passed, an agriculture official said on Tuesday.

GM technology using genes to modify crops in order to yield more output has previously faced resistance in the country in case of health or biodiversity risks.

"The draft for biotechnology projects including funding, reassessment, impacts on environment and crops is ready. The other laws are also ready to support it," Eri Sofari, a biotechnology expert at the agriculture ministry, told a seminar.

The official said a biodiversity security committee needed to be formed before the technology could be used.

Sofari said the GM crop-seeds would be imported from the United States and European based companies but research and seed reproduction would be conducted in Indonesia.

The official said GM crops were needed to avoid food shortages and dependence on imports.

Indonesia is one of Southeast Asia's largest importers of rice, as output is often insufficient to meet demand from its 220 million people.

In 2001, Indonesia planned to cultivate 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of GM cotton in South Sulawesi sponsored by US biotechnology giant Monsanto Co.

But the programme was stopped after meeting strong protests from non-governmental organisations.


Tortilla-Hungry Mexico Setting Rules on GMO Corn

- Reuters via PlanetArk, July 18, 2007


MEXICO CITY - Mexico, widely considered the birthplace of corn, is close to finalizing rules governing experimental planting of genetically modified corn strains, a senior biosecurity official said on Tuesday.

In Mexico, where tortillas made from corn are eaten with almost every meal, the government is determined to boost output in the next few years to offset rising prices driven by US demand for corn-based ethanol fuel.

Mexico's biggest grain farmers have long lobbied to lift a 1998 ban on GMO corn plantings, arguing it would help lift lagging crop yields. But environmental activists say GMO would put Mexico's numerous local corn strains at risk.

Reynaldo Alvarez, who heads Mexico's biosecurity commission, said the president's office now had a copy of the proposed regulations.

"They are revising the final draft," Alvarez told Reuters. "I would hope it will be ready in the next two months."

Mexico last year passed a biosecurity law designed to permit plantings in certain regions under controlled conditions to be set in the regulatory document.

The rules would likely prohibit farmers in regions that contain the oldest strains of corn from planting GMO material, Alvarez said.

Even with the rules established, he said, it could still take time for test requests from biotech firms to be approved. He said such requests would be resolved with within 90 days.

US companies like Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. want to enter the Mexican seed market with GMO strains. A large group representing small corn farmers recently signed a good-will deal with Monsanto.

Scientists have found evidence the grain was grown in Mexico as far back as 5,300 BC, placing it as the likely cradle of corn cultivation. The country has a huge variety of locally specific corn strains that farmers have bred over generations.

Despite that history, Mexico imports millions of tonnes of corn each year and was hard hit when grains prices rocketed in January as demand for ethanol fuel soared in the United States.


Top U.S. prize to PSU professor

Nina Fedoroff, a pioneer in molecular biotechnology, honored for lifetime achievement

- David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 18, 2007


A Pennsylvania State University professor who is a pioneer in molecular biotechnology and genetics will receive the National Medal of Science and Technology -- the nation's highest honor for lifetime achievement in scientific research.

Nina V. Fedoroff, the Verne M. Willaman chair in life sciences and the Evan Pugh professor at Penn State, was one of eight scientists to whom President Bush will award the medal for 2006. In recent months, the White House also announced eight medal winners for 2005.

The scientists will receive their medals July 27 during a White House ceremony. Congress established the award in 1959.

Dr. Fedoroff, a Penn State professor since 1995, said she was pleased and excited by the announcement.

"One gets nominated for many honors but chosen for few," she said. "I am proudest of the fact I contributed to getting a whole field of science -- molecular biology -- off the ground."

Douglas Cavener, department head of biology at Penn State, nominated her for the award.

"This is an enormous honor, the highest honor of science in the United States," he said. "So it is a great tribute to her and her enormous accomplishments over her long career, and an obvious honor for Penn State and the department of biology."

Dr. Fedoroff's 2004 book, "Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods," details how food plants and animals have undergone vast change throughout history. Scoffing at critics of genetically altered food, she said seedless grapefruit, big red apples and farm livestock are prime examples of species that have undergone dramatic changes to the benefit of humankind.

The only food plants not modified, she said, are truffles and some wild blueberries.

"But virtually everything in the grocery store has been modified and modified and modified," she said, noting that genetic changes can reduce insect and fungal damage and the need for pesticides. Modifications also allow food crops to survive cold or arid climates and increase how much food can be produced per acre.

Dr. Fedoroff has had "an influence on public and government policy" worldwide on the topic, Dr. Cavener said.

Throughout her career, Dr. Fedoroff has distinguished herself in developing and applying molecular and genetic techniques to important biological problems.

Earlier in her career she worked in DNA-sequencing techniques, which she used to produce one the first complete gene sequences. At the Carnegie Institution of Washington, she turned to plant research and pioneered the use of molecular techniques in plants and cloned some of the first plant genes.

Dr. Cavener said she helped explain the genetic discoveries of Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock so they could be applied in research. At Penn State, she founded and directed the multidisciplinary organization now known as the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

Today she is working to understand and strengthen mechanisms that plants use to withstand changing climate.

"We're studying in the lab on the cellular level, and we've discovered some interesting stuff," Dr. Fedoroff said.


Disease-free mosquito bred to disease-carrier can have all disease-free progeny

- Virginia Tech (press release), July 17, 2007


Contact: Susan Trulove STrulove+at+vt.edu

Blacksburg, Va. -- A decade ago, scientists announced the ability to introduce foreign genes into the mosquito genome. A year ago, scientists announced the successful use of an artificial gene that prevented a virus from replicating within mosquitoes. But how does one apply what can be done with a small number of mosquitoes in a lab to the tens of millions of mosquitoes that spread disease worldwide"

Researchers from Virginia Tech and the University of California Irvine have demonstrated the ability to express a foreign gene exclusively in the female mosquito germline, a necessary prerequisite to future genetic control strategies in mosquitoes where all progeny of lab and wild mosquitoes will have the gene that blocks virus replication - or whatever trait has been introduced into the lab mosquitoes.

Until now, if lab-grown mosquitoes that are unable to support virus replication were to mate with wild, disease-vector mosquitoes, only half of their off-spring would have the anti-virus gene. Researchers have been working on how to skew the outcome so that all off-spring lack the ability to spread disease. However, these experiments have been hampered by the inability to express foreign genes in the mosquito germ cells.

"We needed to gain access to the cells in the reproductive germline to change the way traits are inherited," said Zach Adelman, assistant professor of entomology and a member of the Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Research Group at Virginia Tech (www.vectorborne.ibphs.vt.edu).

Adelman will discuss what the research breakthrough means for the future control of diseases spread by mosquitoes in his talk, "Dengue Viruses and Mosquitoes, Scourge of the Developing World: Can Genetic Control Make a Difference"" to be presented Thursday morning, July 19, at the 2007 Biotechnology Education Conference at the Inn at Virginia Tech, hosted by the Fralin Biotechnology Center at Virginia Tech.

The research appeared in the June 12, 2007, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/104/24/9970), in the article, "Nanos gene control DNA mediates developmentally-regulated transposition in the yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti," by Adelman, assistant professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, and UC Irvine colleagues Nijole Jasinskiene, Sedef Onal, Jennifer Juhn, Aurora Ashikyan, Michael Salampessy, Todd MacCauley, and Anthony A. James.

Working with Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries yellow fever and dengue fever viruses, the researchers are working to create a "gene-drive system" by using instructions copied from the nanos (nos) gene, which is essential for germline formation. "Think of the nanos instructions as a key to a room," Adelman said.

Using the nanos "key," the researcher team successfully achieved germline-specific expression of Mos1, an enzyme isolated from the housefly that is a transposable element (TE) -- a piece of genetic material that moves around. Mos1 can also move anything attached to it and can duplicate itself and whatever is attached to it, such as a gene that directs the dengue virus to stop replication.

"The research reported in PNAS shows that we can access the female germline and we can perform experiments in the germline," said Adelman. "The nanos control sequences show promise as a part of a TE-based gene drive system," he said.

Adelman was also a member of the team that genetically modified Aedes aegypti so that it was resistant to dengue virus type 2 and showed that the virus was unable to replicate. That research, reported in PNAS on March 14, 2006, also took advantage of the Mos1 transformation system. The anti-viral gene was activated in the mosquito gut following a blood meal. The research was a collaboration of researchers at Colorado State University and UC Irvine, lead by Alexander W.E. Franz at Colorado State. Adelman, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty two years ago, was previously at UC Irvine.


Space watermelons ready to harvest

- Angela Xu, Shanghai Daily, July 18, 2007


AN agricultural company in Minhang District plans to harvest 50 tons of "space crops" this month at the largest experimental farm in the city.

"Space crops" are grown from seeds that have spent time in orbit, where they are modified by cosmic radiation, or future generations developed from those seeds.

Shi Zhenggang, deputy general manager of Pujiang Town Zhengyi Horticulture Co Ltd, said his company planted 25 species of space crops, including tomatoes, corn and watermelons, in February. The seeds had been shot into space on a recoverable satellite last year.

"Space crops are generally bigger than common crops and the color of some species varies," Shi said, citing watermelons with yellow skin as an example.

He said the output from space seeds is 25 percent higher than regular seeds on average.

Crops from the company's first harvest will be sold in a variety pack containing a few species of crops for 100 yuan (US$13) to 150 yuan a box, Shi said.

The next harvest is expected in two months.

Feng Zhiyong of the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences said space crops don't pose any risk to people's health as changes in the seeds happen spontaneously when they come in contact with cosmic radiation, which is different from genetically modified food.


Biosafety Diploma by Distance Learning

- Ancona Marche Polytechnic University (Ancona, Italy), web dated June 15, 2007


An international academically accredited course based on a combination of distance-learning and on-campus training sessions. The training programme is of twelve months duration and leads to an academically accredited Diploma. It is distinctively interdisciplinary with students and faculty from natural & social sciences and the law. The training material and distance-learning platform have been developed by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The programme will be supported through a technical cooperation agreement with UNIDO.

The 2007/2008 course starts tentatively on 5 November 2007. Applications are accepted between 15 June and 15 October 2007. For Registration see http://binas.unido.org/wiki/index.php/Ancona_Marche_Polytechnic_University#Further_Information_and_Registration

Training Outcome

+ University accredited second level E-learning master in Biosafety in Plant Biotechnology

At the end of the programme, successful trainees will be able to conduct risk assessments and apply risk management options. They will also have acquired skills to deal with public policy issues at the interface of science, government, industry and civil society.

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