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September 18, 2007


Court Axes Austrian Ban; Britain, Ireland Change Tune?


* No GM free zone
* Land Oberosterreich v Commission
* GM crops are order of the day
* GM grains may be only option
* Britain losing out on GM crops
* Scientists synthesize memory in yeast


No GM free zone

- Wiener Zeitung, Sept. 13, 2007

EU rejects Upper Austrian ban on genetically modified farming.


Linz. The European Court of Justice has ruled that Upper Austria may not impose a complete ban on genetically modified farming, thereby isolating itself as a "GM free zone".

Upper Austria devised a ban in 2002, which was rejected by the European Commission in 2003 and unsuccessfully appealed by the region in 2005. The final ruling has squelched the province's latest plea of anulment.

Within the EU, Upper Austria has earned a reputation as a "Gallic village" for its campaign against the use of genetically modified plants. The region sees itself as a pioneer of GM-free farming, for which it also has the broad support of residents and farmers.

In light of strict EU import restrictions on GM foods, the court's decision seems somewhat paradoxical. Despite the ruling, precautionary legislation in Upper Austria, which remains uncontested by the EU, makes it difficult for farmers to get permission to use GM seeds and plants.


Land Oberosterreich v Commission

Judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Communities, [2007] EUECJ C-439/05, Sept. 13, 2007


[excerpted; see link above for full text]

(Appeal Directive 2001/18/EC Decision 2003/653/EC Deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms Article 95(5) EC National provisions derogating from a harmonisation measure justified by new scientific evidence and by a problem specific to one Member State Principle of the right to be heard)

[paragraphs 61-64:]

# At paragraphs 66 and 67 of the judgment under appeal, the Court held that the appellants had failed to provide convincing evidence such as to cast doubt on the merits of those assessments and had confined themselves to drawing attention to the small size of farms and the importance of organic production in the Land Oberösterreich. The Court added, in particular, that the appellants did not put forward evidence to rebut EFSA's conclusions that the Republic of Austria had failed to establish that the territory of the Land Oberösterreich contained unusual or unique ecosystems that required separate risk assessments from those conducted for Austria as a whole or in other similar areas of Europe. According to the Court, the considerations put forward by the appellants, by their general nature, were not capable of invalidating the concrete findings set out in the contested decision.

# In that decision, the Commission found that the Republic of Austria had failed to show that there was a specific problem, in the Land Oberösterreich, for the purposes of Article 95(5) EC, arising after the adoption of Directive 2001/18.

# That decision followed an EFSA opinion which found that there was no scientific evidence demonstrating the existence of a specific problem. That agency took the view that no scientific evidence proving the existence of unusual or unique ecosystems that required separate risk assessments from those conducted for Austria as a whole or in other similar areas of Europe had been submitted. The agency found that the Müller report did not provide any new information capable of calling into question the provisions of Directive 2001/18.

# In that respect, the Court of First Instance does not appear to have erred in law by stating that EFSA's findings concerning the absence of scientific evidence demonstrating the existence of a specific problem had been taken into consideration by the Commission.


GM crops are order of the day: Govt

- Business Line (India), Sept. 17, 2007


NEW DELHI: India should accept that genetically modified seeds are the solution to feed the growing population and reduce the pressure on land, a top Government official said.

"If we like it or not, transgenics are the order of the day," Mr Mangala Rai, Director General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research said at a conference on agricultural biotechnology organised by the industry chamber FICCI.

He pointed that India will have a population of more than five billion (500 crore) by 2050 and the pressure on land would increase by 4-6 times.

Mr Rai said due to adoption of GM crops "resistance has increased, pesticides consumption has reduced and productivity has increased".

He added when other seeds can produce one kilo rice by utilising 3,000 litres of water, why should there be opposition, if GM seed can have a better yield with less water.

Mr Rai also said when oilseeds such as castor have improved yield because of use of transgenic seeds, there should not be any resistance against it.

In Gujarat, castor seeds productivity is estimated at 17 quintal per hectare against all India average of four quintal, Mr Rai said.

Mr Krishna M Ella, Chairman, Biotech Committee, FICCI said India would be the hub for world seed production in the next few years. Agri-biotech is growing at 15 per cent per annum, he added.


GM grains may be only option for EU as prices rise

- Stephen Cadogan, Irish Examiner. Sept. 13, 2007


LIFTING restrictions on imports of genetically modified crops is now seen as the EU's only solution to cool down its overheating grain markets.

Linked to price rises of up to 33% for bread across Europe, the grain price surge could hit consumers' purchasing power and increase inflation rates.

Until last year the EU had millions of tons of grain in intervention stocks, but the EU emptied stores in the past year and set intervention prices so low last season that no wheat was stored.

This helped to take world wheat stocks to their lowest level in more than 25 years, and poor harvests in key producer countries have combined with rising demand from emerging markets, resulting in global wheat prices increasing by at least 100%.

Genetically modified grains are abundant in the world and could rapidly relieve animal feed shortages in Europe, and cool the market for wheat for bread and other foods. But few GM grains are authorised in the EU, even for animal feed, due to fierce opposition in many member states. At the end of June they voted against EU approval for Herculex, a GM maize, and this has forced European animal feed importers to pay inflated prices for scarce supplies of non-GM material.

Herculex will be cleared for use later this month - too late for much of the animal feed industry. The European Commission is not expected to put a tax on grain exports, nor scrap a Eu12 per ton tariff on wheat imports, in place since 2003. But the obligation on grain growers to leave 10% of land fallow has been lifted, which should increase supplies by 10 to 17 million tons.

Meanwhile, wild speculation in agricultural commodities is also blamed for rising real prices. On August 30, the futures price for December delivered wheat jumped 3.6% at the Chicago Board of Trade, where trading is up 17% on 2006, which was a fifth consecutive record year, with 806 million contracts of all kinds, including agricultural commodities.


Britain losing out on GM crops, says expert

- Graham Tibbetts, The Telegraph (UK), Sept. 18, 2007


A senior Government agriculture advisor has warned Britain would miss out on important advances if it did not sanction the growing of genetically-modified crops.

Professor Sir Howard Dalton, chief scientific advisor to the Department for the Environment, told the Daily Telegraph that developing GM produce would bring enormous environmental benefits.

He spoke out after a Government source reignited the whole debate by saying that the introduction of GM crops was not a question of "whether" but "how".

Moves to grow GM crops have proved hugely controversial and in 2004, mindful of the public concern, the Government announced no GM crops would be grown in the "foreseeable" future.

But now Prof Dalton claimed the public was now broadly supportive of GM crops.

No such crops are currently grown in Britain but Defra - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - has said that they could conceivably be produced from 2009 onwards.

Only one GM crop, a form of maize, is approved for use in Europe, and even that is only grown in Spain.

The USA and developing countries such as India and China, along with some South American countries, are all way ahead of Britain in adopting the technology.

Prof Dalton said: "We are being left behind. Most companies have gone to the United States or China.

"Having developed the science in the UK we are losing out in the development and utilisation of it. Farmers in the US are benefiting significantly from this - their yields are dramatically improved."

Prof Dalton, who was part of a committee that produced a report on the health effects of GM four years ago, said that public opinion had been affected by the use of the term "genetic modification".

He said that standard crops such as oats and barley now had higher yields compared to centuries ago because of breeding techniques and said GM was merely a speeding up of this process.

Prof Dalton, who is stepping down at the end of the month to return to Warwick University, said the public would support GM once the benefits became clear.

"If people go the petrol station and have a choice between buying ethanol at 50p a litre and gas a 99p a litre it;s obvious which one they would choose. If they see it benefitting them they will accept it."

The environmental advantages would also sway people, he said.

"We can generate GM plants that have low water requirements, low nutrient requirements and are resistant to a variety of pesticides.

"You can use far fewer pesticides which makes a significant difference to workers and the environment," he said.

A year ago the Government announced the circumstances under which GM plants could be grown in Britain, with farmers only having to notify neighbours of their intentions if they were as little as 35 metres (38yds) away in the case of oil seed rape. The effects of GM pollen can be measured over a kilometre (0.6 miles) away.

The combination of European Union opposition to GM and the time it would take to gain approval for GM crops means that none are likely to be grown here commercially until at least 2009 and probably later.

However, the Government has sought to move the issue back up the political agenda.

A source told the Guardian: "GM will come back to the UK. The question is how it comes back, not whether it's coming back."

The source added: "The ability to have drought resistant crops is important not only for the UK but for other parts of the world.

"And the fact that some GM crops can produce higher yields in more difficult climatic conditions is going to be important if we're going to feed the growing world population."

Dr Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council which represents biotech companies, echoed concerns that Britain was lagging behind other countries.

"Ten million farmers around the world are benefitting from this - 9m in developing countries. This tehcnology is going on without the European Union and clearly Europe and the UK is falling behind. If we are serious about food security and biofuel security and serious about climate change we should not put technology like this to one side," he said.

However, the Soil Association, the main campaigners for organic food in Britain, poured scorn on fresh moves to introduce GM crops.

Lord Melchett, policy director, said: "Everyone knows it definitely won't happen. If you take genetically modified potatoes, Walkers crisps and McDonald's, who buy large volumes of potatoes, won't have anything to do with it.

"Unless someone is prepared to come out of the GM closet it's not worth taking seriously. No actual GM crops have yielded more than normal crops."

A Defra spokesman said: "GM technology is not wholly good or bad and the only sensible approach is to consider GM crops on a case-by-case basis.

"Each proposed crop will go through a detailed risk assessment that involves careful scrutiny by independent scientists - not only here but throughout the EU."


Scientists synthesize memory in yeast cells

- Biology News Net, Sept. 15, 2007


Harvard Medical School researchers have successfully synthesized a DNA-based memory loop in yeast cells, findings that mark a significant step forward in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

After constructing genes from random bits of DNA, researchers in the lab of Professor Pamela Silver, a faculty member in Harvard Medical School's Department of Systems Biology, not only reconstructed the dynamics of memory, but also created a mathematical model that predicted how such a memory "device" might work.

"Synthetic biology is an incredibly exciting field, with more possibilities than many of us can imagine," says Silver, lead author of the paper to be published in the September 15 issue of the journal Genes and Development. "While this proof-of-concept experiment is simply one step forward, we've established a foundational technology that just might set the standard of what we should expect in subsequent work."

Like many emerging fields, there's still a bit of uncertainty over what, exactly, synthetic biology is. Ask any three scientists for a definition, and you'll probably get four answers.

Some see it as a means to boost the production of biotech products, such as proteins for pharmaceutical uses or other kinds of molecules for, say, environmental clean-up. Others see it as a means to creating computer platforms that may bypass many of the onerous stages of clinical trials. In such a scenario, a scientist would type the chemical structure of a drug candidate into a computer, and a program containing models of cellular metabolism could generate information on how people would react to that compound.

Either way, at it's core, synthetic biology boils down to gleaning insights into how biological systems work by reconstructing them. If you can build it, it forces you to understand it.

A team in Silver's Harvard Medical School lab led by Caroline Ajo-Franklin, now at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and postdoctoral scientist David Drubin decided to demonstrate that not only could they construct circuits out of genetic material, but they could also develop mathematical models whose predictive abilities match those of any electrical engineering system.

"That's the litmus test," says Drubin, "namely, building a biological device that does precisely what you predicted it would do."

The components of this memory loop were simple: two genes that coded for proteins called transcription factors.

Transcription factors regulate gene activity. Like a hand on a faucet, the transcription factor will grab onto a specific gene and control how much, or how little, of a particular protein the gene should make.

The researchers placed two of these newly synthesized, transcription factor-coding genes into a yeast cell, and then exposed the cell to galactose (a kind of sugar). The first gene, which was designed to switch on when exposed to galactose, created a transcription factor that grabbed on to, and thus activated, the second gene.

It was at this point that the feedback loop began.

The second gene also created a transcription factor. But this transcription factor, like a boomerang, swung back around and bound to that same gene from which it had originated, reactivating it. This caused the gene to once again create that very same transcription factor, which once again looped back and reactivated the gene.

In other words, the second gene continually switched itself on via the very transcription factor it created when it was switched on.

The researchers then eliminated the galactose, causing the first synthetic gene, the one that had initiated this whole process, to shut off. Even with this gene gone, the feedback loop continued.

"Essentially what happened is that the cell remembered that it had been exposed to galactose, and continued to pass this memory on to its descendents," says Ajo-Franklin. "So after many cell divisions, the feedback loop remained intact without galactose or any other sort of molecular trigger."

Most important, the entire construction of the device was guided by the mathematical model that the researchers developed.

"Think of how engineers build bridges," says Silver. "They design quantitative models to help them understand what sorts of pressure and weight the bridge can withstand, and then use these equations to improve the actual physical model. We really did the same thing. In fact, our mathematical model not only predicted exactly how our memory loop would work, but it informed how we synthesized the genes."

For synthetic biology, this kind of specificity is crucial. "If we ever want to create biological black boxes, that is, gene-based circuits like this one that you can plug into a cell and have it perform a specified task, we need levels of mathematical precision as exact as the kind that go into creating computer chips," she adds.

The researchers are now working to scale-up the memory device into a larger, more complex circuit, one that can, for example, respond to DNA damage in cells.

"One day we'd like to have a comprehensive library of these so-called black boxes," says Drubin. "In the same way you take a component off the shelf and plug it into a circuit and get a predicted reaction, that's what we'd one day like to do in cells."

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