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July 19, 2007


Zero tolerance devastates EU; Honeybee Crisis Overstated; Our Biotech Future


* Zero tolerance devastating EU industry
* Food For Thought
* Govt urged to promote biotech
* MSU researchers make plant resistance discovery
* How Pathogens Evolve
* Honeybee CCD an Overstated Crisis
* Fedoroff named adviser to Secretary of State
* Our Biotech Future
* GM tropical fish seized
* By gum, it might just be a solution


GMO zero tolerance devastating for EU feed industry

- AllAboutFeed.net, July 19, 2007


Coceral, the European grain and feedstuffs traders and Fefac, the EU compound feed manufacturers welcome the new EU Commission report on the economic impact of unapproved GMOs, which concludes on the "need to take urgent action to avoid negative implications for EU livestock production and agriculture overall".

JeanMichel Aspar, Coceral President, stated that "the present strict zero-tolerance policy of the EU is disproportionate and will lead to a complete halt of vital feed supplies from South and North-America, as no trading company will bear the risk of guaranteeing absence of traces of GMOs approved in some third countries but not yet in the EU".

He stressed that "the EU is totally dependant on soybean meal imports as major source of vegetable proteins, for which no substitutes are available in sufficient quantities on EU or world markets".

Major feed cost increase

Pedro Corrêa de Barros, Fefac President, stressed that the current de-facto import ban for corn gluten feed will increase feed costs to the EU livestock industry by another €60-90 million at a time of record-high feed grain prices.

He pointed out that "a similar ban on soybean meal imports will have devastating consequences for European livestock producers, wiping out entire pig and poultry production chains in the EU".

Safeguard viable livestock industry

Coceral and Fefac have therefore called on the EU Farm Council to safeguard a viable livestock industry in the European Union, which accounts for 40% of the farm revenues, by ensuring reliable access to vital feed material imports.

As demonstrated in the DG-AGRI study, the "CAP Health check" objectives of a more competitive and sustainable EU agriculture cannot be achieved unless solutions are found to address the issue of unapproved GMOs.

Toolbox ingredients

Coceral and Fefac take the view that a "toolbox" with the following key elements is necessary to re-establish normal trading patterns ensuring a regular supply of high-quality feed materials for the European livestock industry:

* aligning the speed of the GMO authorisation procedure between the EU and the major exporting countries;

* a risk proportionate, workable tolerance for the low level presence of products that have obtained a positive EFSA opinion or have been approved by another OECD country to be present in cargoes of traded feed materials.


Food For Thought

- The Day (Connecticut), July 18, 2007


Word that the European Union will approve the cultivation of a genetically-modified potato for use in making paper coating could indicate the EU is ready to alter its irrational and unscientific opposition to biotech crops.

If that is the case, it is certainly good news. But the lifting of the prohibition for the special spud is a tentative and limited step. The potato is not even meant for eating, and still the EU was reluctant to give the go ahead. Developed by Germany-based BASF AG, and injected with a gene that produces only high-quality, low-cost starch, it would be used for manufacturing glossy magazine paper.

The EU should totally lift the ban on biotech crops.

Modern biotechnology allows genes to be inserted into plants to improve production or nutrition. Scientists have thus developed crops that are resistant to predatory insects, can produce higher yields, or are able to thrive in dryer climates.

Farmers have long sought to improve crops through crossbreeding plants to benefit from the advantageous qualities of the respective vegetation. Improving crops in that manner was a form of bioengineering. New gene technology simply provides for more precise improvements and at a faster rate.

According to the American Farm Bureau, 89 percent of U.S. soybeans are genetically modified, as is 61 percent of corn.

But in Europe this technology has met with resistance. Under public pressure, and following the mad-cow disease scare of the 1990s, the EU refused to approve such crops for cultivation in Europe and prohibited them from being imported.

Critics of biotech foods contend such crops have not been proved safe. They smear genetically modified foods as "frankenfood." But there is no evidence that the new genes, or the proteins they make, have any adverse effect on the people eating them. Fears that genetically modified foods would trigger allergic reactions or increase antibiotic resistance in germs have proved baseless.

Yet the EU has persisted in its ban, placing European farmers and food producers at a competitive disadvantage by producing crops with lower yields and higher susceptibility to disease. And the import prohibitions amount to a form of trade protection.

Genetically-modified, worm-killing corn has been planted on more than 100,000 acres of European farmland. Developed by the Monsanto Co., it was approved in 1998 before hysteria led to the current prohibition. As a result, companies that have developed new forms of genetically-modified corn are not allowed to compete with Monsanto for farm business in Europe.

Unfounded fears about biotech food also could have the result of discouraging development of genetically-improved crops that can help address Third World hunger by enabling local farmers to grow more crops and do so in arid and other harsh conditions.

Here is some food for thought for EU regulators - follow the science.


Govt urged to get serious about promoting biotechnology

- The Jakarta Post, July 19, 2007


Experts have called on the government to urgently start promoting biotechnology in order to ensure food security and improve the living standards of farmers.

Speaking Tuesday during a seminar organized by the Indonesian Biotechnology Information Center (IndoBic), economist Bustanul Arifin said that biotechnology had the potential to greatly increase the production of important food crops, such as rice, corn, soybean and sugar.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, biotechnology, which involves the modification of an organism's genes so as to produce bigger and higher quality crops, could increase plant yields by 61 percent, nutritional content by 50 percent and food quality by 29 percent, and decrease the use of pesticides by 53 percent.

Speaking during the same seminar, Graham Brookes, a director of the U.K.-based biotechnology consultancy firm, PG Economics Limited, said that the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds could increase farmers' incomes by between 6 and 15 percent.

"Although transgenic seeds cost more -- they are around 15 to 20 percent more expensive than natural seeds -- farmers will be able to earn more as they will benefit from lower pesticide use," he said.

Brookes said the United States had reaped an economic windfall of some US$12.9 billion between 1996 and 2005 as a result of the use of the biotechnology.

The Agriculture Ministry has been setting aside about Rp 100 billion ($11.1 million) a year to fund biotechnology research.

Although such research has been going on for almost a decade, Indonesia has yet to grow any GM crops as the regulations that were issued on the subject have not been followed up by concrete initiatives.

"What I have noticed is that the government appears to be on and off about biotechnology," said Bustanul, referring to a lack of research focus.

In 2005, the government issued Regulation No. 21 on the biological safety of GM products, and their economic, social and environmental impacts.

However, the regulation cannot be put into effect as the envisaged biological safety commission to oversee the its application has yet to be established, said Eri Sofiari, an expert advisor on biotechnology to the Agriculture Ministry.

"We hope that Indonesia will be able to produce its first GM crops within the next three years," he said.

He also stressed the need for Indonesia to be able to produce GM seeds in the future, instead of importing them from major producers such as the United States.

"What we expect from this project is that Indonesia will become a producer not only of GM food, but also GM food," said Eri. (12)


MSU researchers JAZ (zed) about plant resistance discovery

- Michigan State University (press release), July 19, 2007


Contact: Sheng Yang He, hes+at+msu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich. - The mystery of how a major plant hormone works to defend plants against invaders has been revealed, thanks to collaborative research efforts by Michigan State University and Washington State University.

While scientists have known for years that a common plant hormone, jasmonate, plays a crucial role in plant development and function, the steps that convert the hormone's signal into genetic and cellular action have remained elusive. MSU scientists Sheng Yang He and Gregg Howe were part of two back-to-back discoveries that solved the mystery, described in the July 18 online issue of the journal Nature.

Jasmonate is the last major plant hormone to have its signaling process revealed. Initial research by WSU researchers identified the family of proteins - dubbed JAZ proteins - that are critical to plants receiving and responding to the jasmonate signal.

"In a healthy environment, these JAZ proteins are doing their job - they're blocking all the defenses and signals, because they are not needed," said Howe, an MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. "But when a plant becomes stressed by an insect or pathogen, the plant needs to respond very quickly if it's going to be successful in warding off the attacker."

Independent of the WSU work, Howe and He used Arabidopsis, a common lab plant, and tomato plants to determine how the JAZ proteins work. Their experiments showed that the jasmonate signal causes direct interaction between JAZ proteins and a second protein complex, SCFCOI1, that works to eliminate the JAZ protein so that the plant can mount a defense response.

Based on the research findings, there is strong evidence to suggest that Howe and He might have identified the SCFCOI1 protein complex as the receptor for jasmonate.

"We found that when jasmonate is present the COI1 and JAZ proteins bind together," said He, an MSU professor of plant biology, plant pathology, and microbiology and molecular genetics. "This opens the way for the plant to turn on the necessary genetic or cellular response."

As part of their research, Howe and He have proposed a model for how this interaction works.

"Now that we know what the active signals are and have identified the key regulatory proteins - the JAZ proteins - involved, the hope is to either genetically modify plants or develop compounds that mimic the jasmonate hormone," Howe said. "The research may help scientists engineer plants for increased resistance to insects and pathogens."

Researchers at both universities will continue to work on other critical aspects of this research.

"Understanding how the jasmonate system works will shed light on all the processes in which the hormone is involved, notably plant reproduction and defense," said John Browse, head of the WSU Institute of Biological Chemistry research team.

"This study represents a significant advance in our understanding of a major plant hormone and how it works," He said. "We are excited to be part of this collaborative effort and look forward to extending the understanding and application of this important work."

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy and supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.

A copy of the Nature article is available at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/index.html.


How Pathogens Evolve To Escape Detection

- Science Daily, July 19, 2007


An arms race is under way in the plant world. It is an evolutionary battle in which plants are trying to beef up their defenses against the innovative strategies of pathogens. The latest example of this war is a bacterium (Pseudomonas syringae) that infects tomatoes by injecting a special protein into the plant's cells and undermines the plant's defense system.

"Plant breeders often find that five or six years after their release, resistant plant varieties become susceptible because pathogens can evolve very quickly to overcome plant defenses," said Gregory Martin, Cornell professor of plant pathology, a scientist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI) on the Cornell campus and the senior author of the research paper, published in the July 19 issue of the journal Nature. "However, every now and then, breeders develop a plant variety that stays resistant for 20 years or more."

Understanding why some varieties have more durable disease resistance is important to the development of more sustainable agricultural practices, he said.

The study by Cornell and BTI scientists describes how a single bacterial protein, AvrPtoB, which is injected by P. syringae into plant cells through a kind of molecular syringe, can overcome the plant's resistance. Normally, the plant's defense system looks out for such pathogens and, if detected, mounts an immune response to stave off disease. As part of this surveillance system, tomatoes carry a protein in their cells called Fen that helps detect P. syringae and trigger an immune response.

But some strains of P. syringae have evolved the AvrPtoB protein that mimics a tomato enzyme known as an E3 ubiquitin ligase, which tags proteins to be destroyed. Once injected, AvrPtoB binds the Fen protein, and the plant's own system eliminates it, allowing the bacteria to avoid detection and cause disease.

"This paper explains how a pathogen can evolve to escape detection," said lead author Tracy Rosebrock, a graduate student in Cornell's Department of Plant Pathology and BTI. "The bacterium has one specific protein that it uses to turn off the plant's immunity."

The researchers found that the Fen gene is present in both cultivated tomatoes and many wild tomato species, leading them to believe that the gene is likely ancient in origin and that many members of the tomato family have used it to resist P. syringae infections over the years. Since the Fen protein still detects AvrPtoB-like proteins from some strains of P. syringae, prompting an effective immune response, the researchers believe new P. syringae strains have only recently evolved a version of AvrPtoB that includes an E3 ubiquitin ligase enzyme that interferes with the plant's surveillance.

"This paper provides molecular data that supports the evolutionary 'arms race' theory" that as pathogens develop new ways to spread and attack organisms, the organisms in turn create novel defenses, each in a continuous battle to outdo the other, said Rosebrock.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Triad Foundation, a private charitable trust.


Honeybee "Colony Collapse Disorder" an Overstated Crisis

- Oregon State University (press release), July 12, 2007


CORVALLIS, Ore. - The "colony collapse disorder" that has alarmed beekeepers and agricultural experts all over the United States is, in all likelihood, a normal variation on problems already known to plague North American honeybees, one expert says. It is not a new and mysterious syndrome.

The cause of unusual levels of bee colony die-offs at specific locations probably relates to local weather issues, bee colony management, pesticide effectiveness, or locally severe concerns with known bee pests, said Michael Burgett, a professor emeritus of entomology at Oregon State University.

Looked at in a broader geographical and historical concept, Burgett said, the existing situation is neither unprecedented nor particularly severe, and certainly not a cause for repeated claims that American agriculture is facing a crisis.

Burgett is one of the world's leading experts on honeybees. He has done research on them for decades in many locations including their ancestral homes in Asia, Africa and Europe, and was the first scientist in the world to warn 25 years ago of the oncoming plague of tracheal and varroa mites that now are a major threat to U.S. honeybees.

The self-professed old-timer said he is unconvinced that the new problems are, in fact, anything new.

"Calling something a new syndrome or disorder makes for good headlines, but it's probably not true," Burgett said. "This field is full of rumor and innuendo, but I haven't seen any verified statistics or data that would persuade me this is anything but a variation on existing problems. It's almost certainly something we can address with research, better beekeeper education and colony management."

In recent months, numerous stories have filled the news with alarming stories of bee colony die-offs, an estimate of 25 percent losses in the nation's honeybee population, billion dollar crop loss concerns, and other issues.

Some documented losses have clearly been severe, Burgett noted. But in a larger context, they aren't all that unusual, compared to the last couple decades since parasitic mites spread across the country.

"Some losses have clearly been related to unusually severe winter weather in certain locations, especially in the East," Burgett said. "And I think there may be some other issues we're dealing with, mainly variations on known problems that we can address with research and bee colony management. But the losses overall are just slightly higher than normal."

A regular Pacific Northwest survey of winter bee colony losses was begun in the late 1980s following the invasion of tracheal and varroa mites, Burgett said, and it shows 22 percent average colony losses; the 1998 figure was 27 percent for commercial bee colonies. Some experts are now calling the national losses of 25 percent a "colony collapse disorder," when on a broader basis those losses are often typical.

A leading suspect for any increased problem, Burgett said, is growing resistance to the pesticides used to control tracheal and varroa mites, and also the increasing use of "softer," less toxic pesticides that have a lighter environmental touch. They can be effective, but only if used by highly knowledgeable beekeepers in a fairly sophisticated management program.

"When the tracheal and varroa mites first arrived in the 1980s, there were huge losses early on, and the first thing we saw was a lot of marginal operators, who didn't really know what they were doing, go out of business," Burgett said.

Other possible concerns, Burgett said, include rising levels of stress from some over-worked bee colonies being moved too often, sometimes to crops that don't give them adequate nutrition. There's a theory about pesticide buildup in beeswax that may have some validity, he said, and deserves further research. And a new pathogen called "Nosema ceranae" has been found in a few U.S. honeybees, which might raise some concerns.

The best approach to the issue, Burgett said, is continued research programs and effective Extension outreach to beekeepers and farmers, to make sure they learn the latest techniques needed to keep colonies healthy.

The world of U.S. beekeepers, Burgett said, changed permanently with the arrival two decades ago of two types of parasitic mites that can impact the health of bee colonies or lead to their death. The mites pose an ongoing challenge to commercial beekeepers and are slowly wiping out wild honeybee colonies all over North America.

Some of the reported evidence of colony collapse disorder, Burgett said, such as bee hives with lots of honey but no bees, are in fact the most common symptom of a severe varroa mite infection.

"In the late 1970s we had another scare similar to this, they called it 'disappearing disease' at the time," Burgett said. "But we never found a specific cause for it, we continued to improve our bee management programs, and 'disappearing disease' disappeared."

In the Pacific Northwest, Burgett said, aggressive programs of farmer and beekeeper education have been implemented through many years of university Extension programs, trade journals and other approaches; coincidentally, there is no current problem in the Northwest with "colony loss syndrome." Winter colony losses this past year were about normal.

"I'm not suggesting this is much ado about nothing," Burgett said. "But it's pretty close. Higher levels of colony loss in specific places are probably the result of various causes that can be identified and dealt with. It's always good to see some funding for bee research and to keep that industry healthy, because it's important. But the sky is not falling on American agriculture."


Fedoroff named science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State

- Penn State University (press release), July 18, 2007


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has named Nina V. Fedoroff, the Verne M. Willaman chair in life sciences and Evan Pugh professor at Penn State and an external professor of the Santa Fe Institute, to be her new science and technology adviser. Fedoroff was nominated for the position by the National Academy of Sciences. She will begin serving a three-year term as science and technology adviser in August while on leave from her current position at Penn State.

In the position of science and technology adviser to the secretary (STAS), Fedoroff will serve as the Department of State's chief scientist and principal liaison with the national and international scientific and engineering communities. Fedoroff is the third person to hold this position since its establishment in 2000. She will be responsible for enhancing science and technology literacy and capacity at the State Department, increasing the number of scientists and engineers working in Washington and in missions abroad, strengthening and building bridges to the scientific and engineering communities, and providing advice on current and emerging science and technology issues as they impact foreign policy.

Fedoroff is one of the nation's most prominent researchers in the life sciences and biotechnology. Fedoroff earned a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry, summa cum laude, from Syracuse University in 1966 and a doctorate in molecular biology from the Rockefeller University in 1972. Throughout her career, she has distinguished herself in the development and application of molecular and genetic techniques to important biological problems. As a postdoctoral fellow, she worked on DNA-sequencing techniques, which she used to produce one of the first complete gene sequences, that of a Xenopus laevis 5S ribosomal RNA gene. She became a staff scientist in 1978 at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where she turned to plant research, pioneered the application of molecular techniques to plants, and cloned some of the first plant genes. She then undertook the molecular characterization of the mobile elements -- now known as transposons -- discovered by maize geneticist and Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock in the 1940s. She cloned the first complete maize transposon and went on to study the molecular mechanisms that control the mobility of the maize Suppressor-mutator element. She discovered a unique type of heritable, but reversible, regulatory circuit -- now called epigenetic -- that controls the mobility of transposons.

After moving to Penn State in 1995 as the Willaman professor of the life sciences, she founded and directed a multidisciplinary organization now known as the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences (http://www.lsc.psu.edu/ online). She was appointed an Evan Pugh professor, Penn State's highest academic honor, in 2002. Today, her laboratory studies the recently discovered phenomenon of gene regulation by small RNA molecules, as well as genes that contribute to the ability of plants to perceive and protect themselves from environmental stressors, such as ground-level ozone. The overall goal of her research is to understand and strengthen the mechanisms that allow plants to withstand the environmental challenges of a changing climate.

Among her many professional activities in the national and international scientific communities, she has been a member of the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee and the Boards of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Genetics Society of America. She has been a member of the National Research Council's Commission on Life Sciences, its Board on Biology, and its Biotechnology Committee. She has served the National Academy of Sciences as a member of Council and as chair of its Publications Committee, as well as a member of the Editorial Board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She served on the International Scientific Advisory Board of the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology in Moscow and was a member of the founding board of the Soros International Science Foundation. She is a member of the Science Steering Committee of the Santa Fe Institute and of the Board of Directors of the Sigma-Aldrich Corp.

In 2001, President Clinton appointed Fedoroff to the National Science Board, a 24-person board that oversees the activities of the National Science Foundation. Members are selected on the basis of their eminence in science, engineering, education or research management. They are appointed for a six-year term by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

She has been active in communicating science to a wider audience as well. As a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar in 1984-85, she explained and discussed the many issues surrounding the use of recombinant DNA techniques. More recently, she has been active in public discussions surrounding the introduction of genetically modified crop plants. She co-authored a book with science writer Nancy Marie Brown titled Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods, published by the Joseph Henry Press of the National Academy of Sciences. She has given many radio and television interviews, and has lectured widely on the subject throughout the United States, Europe, China, India and Bangladesh.

Fedoroff is a 2006 National Medal of Science laureate and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Academy of Sciences, and the Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi honorary societies. She has received honors and awards that include the University of Chicago's Howard Taylor Ricketts Award in 1990, the New York Academy of Sciences Outstanding Contemporary Women Scientist Award in 1992, the Sigma Xi McGovern Science and Society Medal in 1997, and Syracuse University's Arents Pioneer Medal in 2003. She has received research grants from the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Atmospheric and Space Administration and the National Institutes of Health, including a 10-year National Institutes of Health MERIT Award.


Our Biotech Future

- Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books (Vol. 54, No. 12), July 19, 2007


[excerpted; see link above for full text]

It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. Two facts about the coming century are agreed on by almost everyone. Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.

These facts raise an interesting question. Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his "New Biology" article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

The domestication of biotechnology in everyday life may also be helpful in solving practical economic and environmental problems. Once a new generation of children has grown up, as familiar with biotech games as our grandchildren are now with computer games, biotechnology will no longer seem weird and alien. In the era of Open Source biology, the magic of genes will be available to anyone with the skill and imagination to use it. The way will be open for biotechnology to move into the mainstream of economic development, to help us solve some of our urgent social problems and ameliorate the human condition all over the earth. Open Source biology could be a powerful tool, giving us access to cheap and abundant solar energy.


[*] See Carl Woese, "A New Biology for a New Century," in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, June 2004 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1128/MMBR.68.2.173-186.2004); and Nigel Goldenfeld and Carl Woese, "Biology's Next Revolution," Nature, January 25, 2007. A slightly expanded version of the Nature article is available at


Genetically-modified tropical fish seized

- New Zealand Herald, July 19, 2007


Biosecurity New Zealand has seized and destroyed 300 genetically modified tropical fish.

Concerned members of the public alerted authorities after seeing the zebra danio fish - popular with ornamental fish enthusiasts - for sale on the internet.

Biosecurity incursion manager David Yard said the operation at four premises in Christchurch yesterday involved seizing and destroying the fish after genetic testing confirmed they had been genetically modified with a red fluorescent protein to make them a bright red/pink colour.

The Ministry of Agriculture Quarantine Service had unwittingly allowed into the fish into New Zealand under the false impression they had been dyed.

Mr Yard said they posed an "extremely low risk in biosecurity terms" as they were unlikely to enter the food chain or cause any environmental impacts.

"They are tropical, so are unlikely to be able to survive outside a temperature-controlled tank," he said.

"The presence of these fish in New Zealand has not, however, been authorised and they are illegal new organisms in breach of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act."

Biosecurity is now tracing fish that have been sold and wanted anyone who had bright red/pink coloured danios, or knew people who kept them, to contact Biosecurity on the freephone 0800 809966.

Arrangements would be made to collect and destroy the fish.

It was thought the fish were either part of, or bred from, a consignment of red danio that was imported from Singapore this year and cleared by the Quarantine Service.


By gum, it might just be a solution

- The Sydney Morning Herald, July 19, 2007


Selective crossbreeding to speed the growth of trees offers a breakthrough in meeting the increasing world demand for timber and at the same time saving forests, writes Louise Williams. AdvertisementAdvertisement

In a secure, sterile greenhouse just south of the Arctic Circle trees are flowering in four weeks that would otherwise have taken 10 to 15 years to mature. The genetically modified seedlings are a huge step forward in the race to produce bigger, faster-growing trees.

It's a race which must be won to meet insatiable global demand for wood and forest byproducts without pushing commercial logging even deeper into the world's dwindling native forests.

"The post-fossil fuel era will see human society turn back to its traditional dependency on wood," says Professor Ove Nilsson, the scientific co-ordinator at the Umea Plant Science Centre in northern Sweden.

But, he says, projected demand dramatically outstrips forest production. Soaring global consumption, especially in Asia, is colliding with new demands on forests for carbon-neutral biofuels for electricity, industrial furnaces, heating and vehicles.

"Everyone agrees that if we are going to solve this puzzle we have to make commercial forests more productive," Nilsson says. "We have to grow bulkier trees faster so we get much higher yields per hectare. Otherwise we risk cutting down every stand of rainforest left on the planet."

In China, the forest products industry grew from $US4 billion to $US17.2 billion in the five years to last year, paper consumption has doubled in a decade and forests, especially in Indonesia and Russia, are being rapidly felled to feed the Chinese industrial machine. Elsewhere, scientists are eyeing wood for biofuels because it is at least twice as "energy dense" as crops used to make ethanol for green vehicles, and trees require much less land and fertiliser.

The commercial forests of the future, Nilsson says, will be fast-growing plantations "tailor-made" for bio-energy, pulp and paper, new wood fibre products and sawn wood and logs for construction and furniture.

And it's not all science fiction; a plant enzyme has been identified in Sweden which makes paper highly water resistant, a potential replacement for petroleum-based plastics, and a wood fibre composite is being tested to replace plastic components in cars. Millions of cloned high-yield trees are being planted in the US, following decades of research and breeding to select the most productive trees. The most dramatic breeding gains have been achieved in Brazil, where massive eucalyptus plantations grow to 35 metres in seven years, a 300 per cent increase on the original Australian species. But most trees are still only 20 to 40 per cent bigger than their ancestors. Genetic engineering is the next frontier.

The futuristic seedlings are locked inside a pressurised greenhouse on the roof, to prevent cross-contamination of pollen and spores with native forests. Unlike work on crops such as corn and soy, the genetic modification of trees is in its infancy. In agriculture, extraordinary improvements in food crops have been achieved through millennia of selective breeding, irrigation, fertilisers and, more recently, the biotechnology revolution, which began in the US in 1995. Wild tomatoes were originally no bigger than a strawberry and corn was about the size of a finger.

"You could argue that biotech has an even bigger potential for trees than crops because crops were already greatly improved before GM, but in forestry we are still at the beginning," Nilsson says.

The trouble with trees is that, unlike crops, selective breeding takes decades. Many cold climate trees such as spruce and aspen take 10 to 15 years to flower, meaning superior trees can only be picked out and crossbred - in the hope of even more productive offspring - a couple of times in a forester's career.

Eucalypts have galloped ahead because they flower in two to three years, allowing rapid crossbreeding to emphasise favourable characteristics such as fast growth and straight stems, boosting harvests in Brazil from 20 cubic metres of wood per hectare to up to 60 cubic metres.

What Nilsson and his team have managed to do is to mimic one of the earliest flowering plants on the planet, the Arabidopsis, a member of the mustard family that flowers in four to six weeks. They discovered poplars and other trees have the same FT (flowering locus T) gene which triggers early flowering in the Arabidopsis, but in nature it is dormant for up to 15 years. By isolating the gene, activating it, then returning it to the seedling, they've turned on almost instant flowering in several of the slowest-maturing trees.

"The flowers are formed normally and they produce pollen," Nilsson says of the first batch grown last year, which created waves in the global scientific community.

The seedling themselves aren't much use in forests; they're not necessarily bigger or stronger. The idea is to use the GM early-flowering trees for cross-breeding; giving researchers the chance to select the best trees using molecular markers a couple of times every year, instead of once every two decades for cold forests such as those in Sweden.

The way the remotely activated FT gene has been delivered into poplars also opens the door for other genetic modifications from a bank of 250 tree genes identified at the Umea centre. The genetic delivery mechanism is a naturally occurring soil bacterium which readily infects plant cells, transferring part of its own genes into those cells. The bacterium has been hijacked by scientists looking for way into a tree's genetic structure.

"We just replace the bacterium's genes with the genes we want to introduce into the tree and the bacterium (or the plant) won't notice the difference.

"If you take the gene that controls the production of growth hormone and turn it off you get a bonsai, but if you make it more active you get a tree that produces almost twice the amount of wood fibres," Nilsson says.

An Australian PhD candidate, Jonathon Love, is at the Umea centre searching for his tree accelerator. His research focuses on how trees seek to correct a lean by generating more wood on one side to straighten the stem.

"If you identify the gene that is responsible for the localised growth stimulation, turn it on, then put it back, you can stimulate faster growth in the entire trees," he says.

Turning laboratory super seedlings into super forests is likely to rely increasingly on embryonic cloning. When genetically superior parents have been created, embryos can be excised from their seeds and grown in tissue culture, where they can be stimulated to make copies of themselves. The embryos can be stored in liquid nitrogen while the copies are planted out to identify which of the original seeds produced the best characteristics. Cloned tree embryos are not difficult to handle; they can be dried, shipped all over the world, and planted without a seed.

Love has worked in commercial forestry in Tasmania and says he's acutely aware of the pressure rapidly growing demand for wood products is putting on wilderness regions.

"The benefit of using forest sustainably is that you can have a carbon-neutral process. Wood is solar power harnessed by trees; you fix the same amount of carbon growing trees as you lose when you harvest them.

"Science can help with technical solutions to maximise productivity, but you still need good management and political commitment to replanting," Love says.

Umea lies in Sweden's biofuel region of vast forests. Wood waste from local timber industries fuels the power plant, providing carbon-neutral electricity, hot water and heating. Garbage is also tossed into the furnace. There's enough emissions-free hot water to run pipes under the city centre, keeping streets free from snow in winter, when the temperature plunges to minus 20 and the sea, lakes and rivers freeze over.

Forest industry waste is being used to generate electricity and heating in Europe, and in Brazil forest offcuts are replacing fossil fuels in the likes of smelting and food processing. Wood and wood composites must eventually replace high-emissions building materials such as steel, bricks, concrete and synthetic composites. In Sweden's south, Europe's first high-rise wooden apartment block is under construction.

Most significant, perhaps, are Swedish experimental factories turning wood and forest waste into second-generation automotive biofuels, raising the prospect of vehicles running on trees. GM trees are being tested in the US for biofuel production and New Zealand and Denmark are also investing in wood-to-vehicle fuel research.

How close we are to commercial GM forests is a matter of conjecture. China has planted out GM trees modified to resist pests, but many governments are cautious. Nilsson plans to use the fast-flowering mechanism only for breeding in sealed greenhouses. Once high-yield trees have been created, the gene can be bred out, leaving genetically normal trees to be cloned and planted.

GM eucalypts, he says, may be only five for six years away, but genetically modified hardwoods are unlikely in cold climate forests before 2015.

And there's still the contradiction between environmental demands for carbon-neutral biofuels and building materials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the traditional opposition to commercial forests from green groups concerned about biodiversity, especially with single-crop plantations.

But, says Nilsson: "The only way we are going to cope with rising demand is increase forest productivity. GM is one tool but this is a new way of thinking and working and we need more experience to fully understand its potential."

Louise Williams visited Sweden at the invitation of the Swedish Institute for the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, the world's first ecologist and the father of the binary nomenclature system of scientific classification.

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