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September 21, 2007


Canada, US, Thai Support for Biotech; HT Sugar Beets gaining ground; Award for gene silencing


* Canadians Support Biotech
* US Consumers Support Biotech
* Thai Farmers back GM
* Brazil Approves Syngenta Corn
* Plan to Improve GE Quality Compliance
* Pest-resistant eggplant
* HT Sugar Beets gaining ground
* Gene revolution's next frontier
* Science Prize awarded to gene silencing duo


Support for biotechnology continues to be high among Canadians

- BIOTECanada (press release), Sept. 21, 2007


New data released at National Biotechnology Week Launch event indicates more Canadians are familiar with how biotech can benefit their lives

WINNIPEG - During today's launch of the fourth annual National Biotechnology Week (NBW) in Winnipeg, BIOTECanada released the results of its third annual poll of Canadians' understanding of biotech. Results indicate the majority of Canadians support the use of products and processes that involve biotechnology.

"Beer, cold water detergent, door frames and pajamas all have something in common: biotechnology. Biotech truly is an everywhere technology," said Peter Brenders, president & CEO, BIOTECanada. "Our polling data indicates over 80 percent of Canadians support the use of products and processes that involve biotechnology."

The theme of today's NBW Launch spoke to how items we use everyday are biotech products and hold the potential to benefit almost every aspect of our lives from our health, to the food we eat and how we travel.

"Winnipeg is proud to host the launch of this truly national celebration of Canadian innovation," said Dawson Reimer, Chair of the newly rebranded Life Science Association of Manitoba. "In the past decade, Manitoba has experienced a significant increase in activities within the life science and health products sector. Several major publicly financed research centers exist and the number of new companies and employees continues to grow. It's a natural fit to host National Biotechnology Week in this province."

Conducted in partnership with POLLARA, the data released today indicates eight-in-ten Canadians think biotechnology will bring benefits to our health, the environment and agriculture. "In addition to beer, cold water detergent, etc, what Canadians may not realize is they have already benefited significantly from biotechnology. For example, biotech innovations have led to the development of vaccines that are saving lives and hardier crop varieties are improving yields and increasing food supplies," said Brenders.

Public support of the technology was also evident today with an increase in funding to the sector announced at the Launch by The Honourable Jim Rondeau, Minster of Science, Technology, Energy and Mines. According to respondents, the role government can play includes that of access.

"Canadians see an opportunity for governments to make sure Canadians have access to treatments for rare diseases and illnesses, as well as to provide tax incentives to encourage innovation in Canada," said Brenders. "That's part of our discussion with federal decision makers this week during National Advocacy Day in Ottawa, and our meetings with MPs throughout the provinces."

The complete results of the poll are available at http://www.biotech.ca and http://www.imagenenation.ca - the official website for National Biotechnology Week.


Food Safety Concerns Do Not Include Biotechnology, According to IFIC Survey

Public less wary of animal biotechnology.

- International Food Information Council (press release), Sept. 20, 2007


Washington, D.C. -- Consumer familiarity and overall impression of food biotechnology remains little changed from a year ago in the United States, amidst major concern over food safety. According to a survey commissioned by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), there was little change in the American public's perception of food biotechnology, and those who have an opinion are twice as likely to have favorable-as opposed to unfavorable- impressions.

"The public's attitudes about food biotechnology remained constant despite a year of tremendous media attention on food concerns" said IFIC President and CEO David Schmidt. The national survey represents the 12th time IFIC has commissioned a survey on public attitudes about food biotechnology since 1997.

* Confidence in U.S. Food Supply

Overall confidence in the food supply remained at a high level with 69 percent of Americans indicating they were "very" or "somewhat" confident in the food supply compared to 72 percent last year. However, the number of Americans selecting "very confident" decreased from 21 percent in 2006 to 15 percent this year.

A sizeable number of Americans (25 percent) cited no particular food safety concern. Of the three-quarters of respondents who listed a specific food safety concern, disease and contamination topped the list at 38 percent; however, the biggest increase was in the "source" category, where concern about country of origin caused this category to rise from 6 percent of those citing a specific concern with the food supply in 2006 to 20 percent this year. Handling and preparation decreased as a food safety concern, cited by 26 percent of those citing a specific concern this year, dropping nine percent from last year's survey.

* Animal Biotechnology

While the public's overall favorable impression of plant biotechnology remained little changed in the past year, favorable impressions of animal biotechnology increased from 19 percent in 2006 to 24 percent this year. Nearly half of Americans (46 percent) said they were "somewhat" or "very" likely to buy meat, milk and eggs from cloned animals if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined they were safe. When the phrase "from cloned animals" was replaced with "from animals enhanced through genetic engineering" the number of Americans who were "very" or "somewhat" likely to buy these food products jumped to 61 percent. Both of these figures show an increase from the 2006 survey.

Increased awareness of potential positive impacts of animal biotechnology continues to correlate with increased support among consumers. Two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) said they had a positive impression of animal biotechnology when informed that "animal biotechnology can improve the quality and safety of food," up from 59 percent in 2006. More than half of Americans (53 percent) reacted positively to the statement "animal biotechnology can increase farm efficiency," up from 36 percent in 2005 and 47 percent in 2006.

* Labeling

Satisfaction with current information on food labels remained high in 2007. Only 16 percent of consumers mentioned information they felt was missing, with less than one percent specifically mentioning biotechnology.

FDA requires special labeling only when the use of biotechnology introduces an allergen, or when it substantially changes the food's nutritional content. Well over half of those polled (61 percent) "strongly" or "somewhat" support the FDA labeling requirements for food produced using biotechnology, while 24 percent were "neutral" which was unchanged from last year's survey.

* Sustainability

This year, IFIC included questions about "sustainability" in the food biotechnology survey for the first time. Although Americans use a variety of terms to describe "sustainability," 83 percent equate the term to "long-lasting" or "self-sufficiency." Close to three-quarters of Americans (70 percent), however, say they have heard "nothing" about sustainable food production.

When sustainability was defined as a method to "operate in a manner which does not jeopardize the availability of resources for future generations," 63 percent of Americans said they thought it was important. In a question where consumers were asked to rank 5 factors related to growing crops in a sustainable way, the factor ranked number one was "increasing the production of food staples in the world, thereby reducing world hunger", with "reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food" coming in second. Other eco-friendly factors like rainforest conservation and reducing green house gas emissions ranked lower.

* Methodology

IFIC commissioned Cogent Research to conduct the 12th in a series (1997-2007) of quantitative assessments of U.S. adult consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology from July11- 27, 2007. The survey had a sample size of 1,000 and the data were weighted on age and education to be nationally representative.


Farmers back GMO

- Mayuree Sukyingcharoenwong, The Nation (Thailand), Sept. 20, 2007


More than 50 farmers yesterday expressed support for genetically-modified organisms.

"I want GM experiments to move ahead so that farmers can boost productivity while saving costs," said Niwat Pakwises, whose papaya orchard on more than 100 rai of land in Samut Sakhon has been struck by the ring spot virus.

"I have already invested more than Bt500,000 in my farm, so I want to get good, quality yields. I'm looking for a strain that is resistant to the disease," he told the seminar hosted by the Biotechnology Alliance Association and Kasetsart University.

Sutat Sriwatanapongse, the association's president, said that according to recent research, GM papayas that were resistant to the virus were not only safe to eat but also environmentally friendly.

Citing findings from a recent survey, Sutat said that after farmers were educated about GM technology, 91 per cent said they would grow GM crops if the technology won government approval.

"Up to 71 per cent of farmers believe GMO crops are safe for consumption and up to 89 per cent believe GM technology has done more good than harm," he said.

The association would propose that the government allow GM field tests at the Agriculture Ministry's experimental farm in Khon Kaen and at Kasetsart's Kamphaengsaen campus.

Saijai Puttawan, a farmer who visited the Philippines under the 2007 Regional Farmers Exchange Programme, said he learned a lot about biotechnology there and found that biotechnology was very useful.

"Other Asian countries have seriously promoted biotechnology," he said.

Agriculture Minister Thira Sutabutra said other ministries had agreed to seek Cabinet approval for GM field testing. He had already talked to the Science and Natural Resource ministries.

He insisted that if the Cabinet gave the green light, authorities would put in place measures to keep the genetically-modified papayas strictly within the experimental farms.

"Neither seeds nor pollen will sneak out of the test fields," he said.

A main objective of the GM testing was to help farmers who had been suffering from the spread of papaya-ring spot virus for years, he added.


Brazil Biosafety Agency Approves Syngenta GMO Corn

- Cattle Network, Sept. 20, 2007


SAO PAULO (Dow Jones)--Multinational seed maker, Syngenta Seeds, had its genetically modified sweet corn, Bt-11, approved by the Brazilian biosafety agency, CTNBio, Thursday.

Syngenta Seeds is a unit of Syngenta AG (SYT).

CTNBio's approval is the first step in a process that can take as long as two years before Brazilian farmers can commercially plant the transgenic corn.

Monsanto Co. (MON) and Bayer CropScience also have had transgenic corn products approved this year by the organization, but none have yet been allowed commercially.

The Syngenta seeds grow into corn plants resistant to certain worms and caterpillars. The mechanism that provides the insect protection is based on a soil bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt.

Bt-11 is permitted in the U.S., Canada and Argentina, among other nations.

Corn is Brazil's No. 2 crop behind soybeans.


Conner Announces Plan to Improve Quality Compliance of Genetically Engineered Products

- US Department of Agriculture (press release no. 0257.07), Sept. 20, 2007


WASHINGTON, - Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner today announced a new program to help universities, small businesses and large companies develop sound management practices to enhance compliance with regulatory requirements for field trials and movements of genetically engineered (GE) organisms. The new Biotechnology Quality Management System, a voluntary compliance assistance program, is scheduled for initial implementation in spring 2008.

"Biotechnology is a key component of our growing agricultural economy," said Conner. "USDA's program will help the biotechnology sector become better stewards by focusing on the implementation of best management practices so that problems can be prevented."

USDA's biotechnology initiative complements a program called, "Excellence Through Stewardship," which is already underway in the biotechnology industry. While industry's program is focused on quality management to ensure product integrity of biotech-derived plant products throughout the product life cycle, USDA will emphasize the quality of the process for safely introducing these GE organisms in compliance with federal regulations.

The Biotechnology Quality Management System was developed to be as inclusive as possible so that a broad array of participants could participate. It will consist of two program levels, based on domestically and internationally recognized quality management systems. Specifically,

* 1) Level-A program: This program will be designed for participants that do not have formal quality management systems in place. It will help them develop good management procedures and will be geared toward small businesses and universities.

* 2) Level-B program: Companies and researchers that have formal management systems in place may choose to participate in the Level-B program. This program is intended for those participants that grow GE plants at multiple sites, often through the use of cooperators, and will include training guidelines and documentation procedures to ensure accountability at all levels by all involved parties.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service (APHIS) intends to oversee the Biotechnology Quality Management System program in partnership with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which will manage the audit component of the program and accredit third party auditors. Audits will verify that participants have procedures in place, and that they are performed correctly to meet the regulatory requirements for any given GE field trial or movement. As part of the program's emphasis on preventive measures, participants will be encouraged to correct deficiencies discovered in an audit before compliance problems develop.

The Biotechnology Quality Management System and its associated audits will complement, not replace, APHIS' current regulatory compliance and inspection process by focusing on planning and good management practices that can improve a participant's ability to meet regulatory requirements. The current inspection program will continue to cover specific permits and notifications to ensure compliance with regulations.

APHIS, in partnership with AMS, will implement the voluntary system through an agency notice and participation in the program will not be a regulatory requirement. APHIS also will work proactively to provide outreach and guidance to those companies and researchers that choose to participate and develop these quality management programs.

Currently there are several audit-based, quality verification systems in operation throughout USDA's marketing and regulatory programs mission area, such as AMS' Process Verified Programs. APHIS regulates the confined field release, interstate movement and importation of GE organisms. APHIS currently ensures compliance with regulations through inspections conducted at critical stages, consistent and appropriate enforcement actions and comprehensive record keeping and reporting requirements. Quality management systems are intended to improve regulatory compliance by fostering a company's commitment to sound controls, quality management practices and effective compliance with federal regulatory requirements.

Additional information about the Biotechnology Quality Management System is available at www.aphis.usda.gov.

Fact Sheet: Biotechnology Quality Management System http://www.usda.gov/documents/fs_bqms9-2007.pdf


Cornell helps develop pest-resistant eggplant, the first genetically modified food crop in South Asia

- Krishna Ramanujan, Cornell University (press release), Sept. 19, 2007


Cornell researchers and Sathguru Management Consultants of India have successfully led an international consortium through the first phase of developing a pest-resistant eggplant. By about 2009 this eggplant is expected to be the first genetically engineered food crop in South Asia. Farmers have grown genetically altered cotton in India since 2002.

The engineered eggplant expresses a natural insecticide derived from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), making it resistant to the fruit and shoot borer (FSB), a highly destructive pest. The tiny larvae account for up to 40 percent of eggplant crop losses each year in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, and other areas of South and Southeast Asia.

The work on the resistant eggplant is part of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP) II, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and administered by Cornell in partnership with Sathguru, a firm associated with Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

Cornell researchers from plant breeding, entomology, molecular biology, applied economics, communication, international programs and the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization began collaborating on the development of the Bt eggplant in 2002. Another partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds, is on schedule to commercialize the genetically modified fruit by 2009.

"Cornell has worked effectively to facilitate a productive partnership between the public and private sectors that will make this technology available to eggplant producers at every economic level," said Ronnie Coffman, international professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of International Programs in CALS.

"In five years, with support from Sathguru and Cornell, our partners were able to bring this flagship program to field trials and get food, feed and environmental safety approvals," said K.V. Raman, Cornell professor of plant breeding.

All the safety tests for the Bt eggplant have been conducted in India, starting in greenhouses and now moving to large-scale field trials. The eggplant has been found to be nontoxic to fish, chickens, rabbits, goats, rats and cattle as well as nonallergenic. Ongoing tests will examine such questions as whether the plant will continue to resist FSB in the field and for how long; whether the Bt eggplant cross pollinates with other eggplants in the field and how far the Bt plants should be from other eggplant fields; whether nontarget insect populations are affected in the long term; and how yields compare with those of other eggplant varieties.

It is estimated that the Bt eggplant will reduce insecticide use by 30 percent while doubling the yield of marketable fruit (although eggplant is eaten as a vegetable).

Eggplant is a popular crop in the subtropics and tropics, especially in India and Bangladesh, where it is grown on about 1.5 million acres.

India and Bangladesh together expect to plant 110,000 acres of the FSB-resistant eggplant commercially by the end of 2010 and 650,000 acres by 2015. Economists from Cornell and other institutions report that the Bt eggplant would result in lower prices for consumers, higher yields for farmers and, by 2015, boost the Indian economy by $411 million and the Bangladeshi economy by $37 million.

"In spite of the green revolution in India, agricultural growth has stagnated there to less than 2 percent per year," said Raman. "It is important for a land-grant university like Cornell to be engaged in the improvement of technologies and help create a road map that leads to agricultural and economic growth in places like South and Southeast Asia and Africa."


Herbicide-Tolerant Sugar Beets gaining in MN

- Seed Today, Sept. 18 2007


MOORHEAD, MN - Sugar beet seed that has built-in resistance to the popular Roundup herbicide is expected to be in widespread use next year, as governments and sugar processors approve the biotech beets.

In the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, American Crystal Sugar Co. has decided to make the jump.

"It's a pretty major step," Crystal President David Berg said. "Here at American Crystal, we believe biotechnology is the current wave that will help feed the world."

The Worland, Wyo.-based Wyoming Sugar Co. planted about one-sixth of its 12,000 acres to Roundup Ready beets this year. Wahpeton, N.D.-based Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative has announced tentative plans to move to biotech seed.

"It's still not 100 percent," said Tom Knudsen, a co-op vice president for agriculture. "(But) the reasons for making the decision are still valid. I don't see anything that looks like it could be a cloud on the horizon."

Biotech seed harvest is beginning in Oregon, Knudsen said.

Three companies are expected to handle it in 2008, and the Crystal Seed brand also will be available for American Crystal growers.

Berg said he expects farmers in the Red River Valley to have enough biotech seed to plant up to half of their acreage.

Farmers who want to use the biotech seed must factor a technology fee of about $60 per acre into their plans.

"What we're asking our shareholders to do is go in with a good healthy look at their production costs," Berg said. "We have a database of what (farmers) spend, and our numbers say if you're in the middle to lower half in weed control costs, it probably would make sense to use conventional seed and weed control."

Amenia farmer Bill Hejl, president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said he expects to get more sugar per acre with biotech beets. "I also think I'll probably spend less on herbicides, maybe less on fertilizer next year, and less on cultivation," he said.

"It's something new, and a lot of sugar beet growers, a lot of my neighbors are very excited, up and down the valley," Hejl said.

Sugar beet yields are particularly susceptible to weed pressure, with some industry experts saying weeds can sap as much as 30 percent of a crop's yield. Sugar beet fields are the only ones in the Red River Valley in which people still are occasionally employed to work up and down the rows, hoeing weeds.

"Field labor will be thing of the past," said Nick Sinner, executive director of the sugar beet group.

Biotech beets also could reduce the need for what is known as "micro rate" herbicide applications. The process involves smaller amounts of chemical applied multiple times, to cut down on injury to the beets. That requires more passes through the field, which burns more fuel and compacts the soil, which then needs cultivation.

"Typically, a farmer might spray three or four times a year, but it can be up to five," Sinner said. "With Roundup Ready (beets), we have more of an opportunity to kill weeds without injury to the beets."

All countries that are major sugar beet markets, including the United States, have approved the Roundup Ready beet variety. The European Union's formal approval is pending, but the European Food Safety Authority said late last year that "no risks to human and animal health were identified in studies."

Molly Cline, senior director of global industry affairs with St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which developed Roundup Ready beets, said recently that processor acceptance was the last step to making biotech beets as widespread as genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton.

"The sugar from genetically modified beets is chemically the same as that grown from traditional beets, leaving no DNA trace from the biotechnology process," Cline said. "As such, it requires no special labeling in North America and in Japan."


Biotechnology - the gene revolution's next frontier

- Gio Braidott, Science Alert, Sept. 19, 2007


For the first time scientists are exploring epigenetically controlled genes in wheat, barley and canola pre-breeding programs.

From its inception, molecular biology has rested on a central theory: that the traits inherited by an organism are encoded and transmitted by the DNA sequence of genes.

As a molecular biologist, Dr Liz Dennis of CSIRO Plant Industry in no way disputes the theory, having used it with her colleagues to discover a gene that switches plants between vegetative growth and flowering. Nonetheless, she has seen first-hand that even the most entrenched genetic assumptions occasionally go haywire due to an entirely different mechanism that overrides conventional genetics.

This extra player has been termed 'epigenetics' - the ability of something other than the inherited DNA sequence to determine the organism and its progeny.

"Some 20 years ago, a number of top plant research journals wouldn't publish anything to do with epigenetics," Dr Dennis says. "But now it is clear that there is another level of control over and above the gene sequence. It has to do with how DNA is packaged and modified."

This 'packaging' is required because DNA molecules are extremely long, exceeding the length of a cell many times over. To get around this problem, DNA is coiled around tiny reel-like structures - called histones - and then the coils are twisted into ever-tighter bundles.

"If the DNA is wound up tightly enough, the proteins required to express genes cannot gain access and the genes remain inactive," Dr Dennis says. That implies that changes in DNA packaging could, potentially, determine whether a gene is switched on or off.

Around the world, a cadre of geneticists - Dr Dennis among them - quietly realised that anything capable of systematically controlling the way DNA is packaged amounts to a whole new kind of control over genes and an organism's traits.

For many years scientists questioned whether such a control system existed. In the past decade, as scientists started to identify the underlying molecular mechanisms, there has been a growing recognition of epigenetics and its over-arching influences.

"Epigenetics works by either chemically modifying the DNA or the histone proteins in ways that can switch gene expression on or off," Dr Dennis says. "The modifications primarily involve adding or removing acetyl or methyl groups."

The effect on organisms can trump conventional expectations. Dr Dennis relates the example of a gene involved in the formation of stamens and the superman mutation of that gene which results in an over-abundance of the flower's male parts. The same effect can be produced by an epigenetic modification on the normal, non-mutated gene.

"Epigenetics has its own, seemingly erratic, logic and utility," Dr Dennis says. "Environmental factors, pathogens or changes in growth rate and nutrition can trigger some genes to epigenetically switch on or off. It is now known that in plants, epigenetics is a factor during the major developmental transitions, such as flowering and seed setting."

Overall, the early findings of this new field of research create a tantalising possibility. It is the idea that epigenetics provides an otherwise conserved and rigidly regulated set of genes with a dose of interactivity and responsiveness to their environment: "You can think of it as a higher-order level of control in which the genetic is dominant only if there is no epigenetic override on the DNA."

This is significant because scientists can now trace a pathway by which the environment is able to influence gene expression and plant traits. That opens up the possibility of developing crop varieties with better-adapted responses to detrimental environmental events, such as frost.

Dr Dennis adds that the overrides are routinely replicated during cell divisions in any one organism but are not necessarily passed on to the next generation - rather, the progeny inherit the ability to make their own epigenetic modifications.

However, because DNA sequencing techniques are unable to detect epigenetic modifications, data gathered by genome projects is missing an important layer of information that is liable to prove important to plant breeders. In response, initiatives dubbed 'epigenomics' are starting up around the world to map epigenetic modifications across genomes.

After 20 years of epigenetic research by Dr Dennis, Australia has a strong record. "We didn't participate in genome sequencing projects very much, but there is an opportunity now for Australia to play a lead role in the emerging field of epigenomics," she says.


PM's Science Prize awarded to gene silencing duo

- Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (press release), Sept. 19, 2007


The 2007 Prime Minister's Prize for Science has been awarded to two CSIRO scientists for their discovery and development of a gene silencing mechanism that is causing a revolution in crop, medical and livestock research around the world.

CSIRO Plant Industry researchers Dr Peter Waterhouse and Dr Ming-Bo Wang discovered double-stranded RNA-induced gene silencing in plants, a naturally occurring mechanism evolved to turn down or switch off the activity of genes, following an observation made while working to understand how plants protect themselves from virus attack.

Gene silencing has since been developed into a highly effective tool for gene discovery and determining gene function in humans, animals, plants and insects.

"Once we found the gene silencing mechanism we knew we were onto something big. We felt confident that if we could learn how to direct it, we would be able to control different types of plant genes for different purposes," Dr Waterhouse said.

The Canberra-based team's first success was when they used gene silencing to enable plant genes to resist diseases, including Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus, which can cause yield losses of about 15-25 per cent in cereals such as wheat and barley.

"Since then we've worked to improve the efficiency of our technology, making it an extremely precise, rapid and user-friendly tool for identifying genes and their function," Dr Waterhouse said.

The CSIRO gene silencing technology is currently used in more than 3,000 laboratories around the world on a diverse range of projects, including developing new crop varieties, and it holds tremendous promise as a therapeutic agent to control disease in humans and animals.

"CSIRO's Food Futures Flagship is using our technology to develop oilseeds with a high omega-3 content and wheat with high levels of resistant starch, both of which are important for human health," Dr Wang said.

"Overseas examples include a national program to develop rice that is resistant to rice stripe virus in China, improving the yield and nutritional value of cassava in Africa and a US project using the technology to make antibodies in plants for the treatment of human diseases including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis."

The $300,000 Prime Minister's Prize for Science, the nation's premier science award, is presented to Australian scientists who promote human welfare through an outstanding achievement in science or technology.

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