* Latin America, EU to collaborate
* Tougher Rules on GMO Imports
* USDA outlines alfalfa rules
* Herbicide-tolerant crops are coming
* Bove launches hunger strike
* Hidden layer of the transcriptome
* Modified sorghum to boost nutrition
* Synthetic DNA to Yield New Life Forms
* 'Suicide Seeds' and the Developmental State
* Funding GM crops with carbon credits
* Video: The Eyes of Nye/Cloning
Latin America and EU to collaborate on biotechnology
- Laura García, SciDev.Net, Dec. 27, 2007
The Latin American trade pact Mercosur and the European Union have agreed to develop a programme to fund agricultural biotechnology projects in Latin America.
BIOTECSUR was unveiled last week (19 December) at Argentina's Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation.
The European Union (EU) has pledged US$10.4 million to the programme, with Mercosur members Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay investing US$1.4 million. Argentina will coordinate the programme.
The initiative will fund four regional projects in four areas of interest: forestry, oilseeds, ovine (sheep) and avian (bird).
"We are going to create a regional platform for biotechnology, which gathers policy, science and the private sector", says Igueda Menvielle, director of BIOTECSUR and national director of international relationships at the Argentinean Ministry of Science.
Menvielle said the programme focuses on agricultural biotechnology because this sector has a high impact on innovation and development, which in turn will have a positive impact on the region's economy.
Representatives from the Mercosur nations and the EU will attend seminars between February and April 2008 to identify the region's main biotechnology demands. A call for project proposals will be launched in May and remain open until the end of July.
A jury of experts and policymakers will select the four final projects, to be presented to the EU in September. Each project will receive €1 million (US$1.4 million) and start in November 2008, running for about two and a half years. Menvielle says that Brazil is organising a similar regional programme on information and communication technologies.
Government to Toughen Rules on GMO Imports
- Cho Jin-seo, The Korea Times via ellinghuysen.com, Dec. 30, 2007
A number of government agencies will collectively be in charge of monitoring the research and development of genetically-modified crops and animals, which may cause confusion and inefficiency in the regulating system.
The Ministry of Science and Technology announced Friday that the research, development, import, export and distribution of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), or living modified organisms (LMO), will require prior approval from different government agencies from Jan. 1, depending on the safety level of the materials and the type of possible hazard it has for the environment or for people.
GMOs are plants or animals that have their genes altered by genetic engineering techniques. Many global food companies, especially those based in North America, are producing and exporting GMO products, such as high-yield rice, maize and soybeans that are tolerant to herbicides. Many countries have been establishing regulations on the import and sale of the GMOs as worries of possible environmental and health damage have arisen.
The Korean government's new reporting process looks as complicated as the gene modifying technique itself. The government separated the GMOs into four categories by hazard level, but only with vague, subjective guidelines: The level 1 and 2 facilities should be reported to the Ministry of Science and Technology, while level 3 and 4 are subjected to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, except those can ``possibly damage the environment'' that again belong to the science ministry.
Even if an R& D facility is approved by one administrative body, it is required to get separate permission for each crop and animal that has ``high risk.'' For example, GMOs used in farming or forestry should get approval from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. For ecological use, the Ministry of Environment is in charge of the GMO vetting. For maritime organisms, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries will grant permission. Meanwhile, some of the ministries are expected to be merged next year by incoming President Lee Myung-bak as they have been criticized for overlapping administrative control.
Genetically engineered crops have been thought to create economic risks that have been overlooked in the past. In the U.S. rice market in 2006, illegal varieties of genetically modified rice were found contaminating the rice supply, causing as much as $1.2 billion in damages and additional costs to the industry.
The modification of some crops to improve their resistance to herbicides is also believed to produce herbicide-resistant weeds, which has led to more herbicide use.
USDA order outlines RR alfalfa rules
Department clarifies hay selling,shipping regs
- Elizabeth Larson, Capital Press, Jan. 7, 2008
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has updated requirements for handling genetically modified alfalfa in the wake of a ruling earlier this year that required the government to re-regulate the hay. On Dec. 18 the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued a supplemental administrative order which it says "clarifies and replaces" a July 12 order that outlines mandatory practices for Roundup Ready alfalfa producers.
The updated seven-page administrative order adds considerable detail to identifying Roundup Ready alfalfa hay, which is reportedly meant to offer growers more flexibility.
In the initial order, each bale of genetically modified hay had to carry a tag secured to its binding twice that identified it as Roundup Ready alfalfa.
The new rule would allow hay producers the option of identifying the hay by lot, including placing a sign measuring 8.5 inches by 11 inches in size - or larger - marked "Roundup Ready Alfalfa" on loads of the hay.
The supplemental order allows commingling of Roundup Ready hay and other hays on farms, but the order prohibits businesses or producers to sell the hay mixed with non-genetically modified hay, unless it is clearly identified as containing Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Hay sellers must keep labeled Roundup Ready alfalfa segregated from non-genetically modified hay while storing it, the order states.
In addition, the order requires vehicles transporting genetically modified hay to carry extensive documentation information, including the Roundup Ready alfalfa designation; the name, signature and addresses of both buyers and sellers; the hauler's name; a hay lot number; unit count; weight, scale and ticket number; and shipment date.
Beth Nelson, president of the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance, based in St. Paul, Minn., said the group began an effort in August to ask the USDA for amended rules after hearing from concerned alfalfa growers.
"Because the original order came in mid-season, a lot of bales were already stacked," Nelson said. In the West, particularly, a couple of alfalfa cuttings already had been done, Nelson said.
That set up a potentially dangerous situation for growers, who would have to unstack hay to adhere to the regulation, Nelson said. Having to label bales by hand also created a labor-intensive process.
"What we wanted to do was open another option in those situations," Nelson said.
On May 3, 2007, Judge Charles Breyer of Federal Northern District of California issued a permanent injunction on seed sales or new plantings of Monsanto and Forage Genetics' glyphosate-tolerant Roundup Ready alfalfa in a lawsuit filed by Geertson Seed Farms and several co-plaintiffs.
The ruling rolled back the USDA's June 2005 deregulation of the genetically modified alfalfa while a full environmental study is done, which the USDA said could take about two years to complete. However, producers who already had seed planted by March 30 were allowed to continue with production.
Nelson said the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance had already planned a mid-summer trip to Washington, D.C., so they took the opportunity on that trip to meet with USDA officials. The group later filed an official request seeking the change.
Monsanto was involved in the process of asking for the rules to be amended, Nelson said, and developed a form for haulers to carry to meet the USDA's information requirements.
Monsanto representatives couldn't be reached for comment due to the New Year's holiday.
Herbicide-tolerant crops are coming
- Kalyan Ray, Deccan Herald, Dec. 31, 2007
Known as herbicide tolerance, the technology actually offers a package to the farmer.
Notwithstanding the ongoing controversies related to Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, the government is all set to embrace another genetically modified technology which generated considerable heat in the US and Canada during the last decade.
Known as "herbicide tolerance", the technology actually offers a package to the farmer - a broad spectrum pesticide that can kill allmost all types of weeds and a GM crop that can withstand that pesticide. The net result is an increase in productivity.
The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) has given "in-principle" approval to herbicide tolerant crops which are genetically modified to withstand a particular herbicide.
The ICAR approval came at a consultation meeting on December 10 and 11, which was attended by the council's director-general, Dr Mangala Rai, and deputy director general Dr A K Singh, sources told Deccan Herald.
One of the ICAR institutes, the Jabalpur-based National Research Centre for Weed Science (NRCWS), plans to undertake a five-year project with the technology's worldwide leader Monsanto during the 11th Plan. Monsanto manufactures a herbicide called Roundup that kills almost all plant species including most crop plants though it is safe for humans and animals. The same company also produces genetically modified crop plants like corn, canola, cotton and soybean, which can withstand Roundup's onslaught.
The same herbicide kills other weeds thereby increasing the overall crop productivity. Weeds reduce 30-40 per cent productivity for any crop. Monsanto and its Indian partner Mahyco tested two Roundup ready products - flex cotton and yield guard corn - in confined fields in a limited way. But larger trials could not be carried forward because of restrictions imposed by the apex court. "We are waiting for a verdict from the Supreme Court, which had stayed trials of all GM crops. Scientifically herbicide tolerance is a correct technique that gives value to the farmers," NRCWS director Dr Jay G Varshney told Deccan Herald from Jabalpur.
While scientists are upbeat, environmentalists describe herbicide tolerance as a monstrous technology that puts farmers in distress by producing "superweeds".
These plants can spawn labour problems because in India weeds are mostly uprooted manually by farm labours. Dr Varshney refutes the charge arguing that "superweed is a myth" that does not have any scientific basis. In 2006, herbicide tolerant soybean, maize, canola, cotton and alfalfa were cultivated in almost 70 million hectares of land throughout the world.
French activist Bove launches anti-GMO hunger strike
- Tamora Vidaillet and Valerie Parent, Reuters, Jan. 3, 2007
PARIS - French radical farmer Jose Bove, who became a worldwide celebrity for his fight against junk food, went on a hunger strike from Thursday to try and get the government to do more to ban genetically modified (GMO) crops.
Speaking on RTL radio, Bove said he had only been drinking water since early in the day to protest what he described as the government's failure to follow through on a pledge late last year to use a legal clause to ban GMO use.
Bove and around 15 other activists will carry out the hunger strike in a building in central Paris.
Bove said the government had promised to write a letter to the European Commission saying France would use the so-called safeguard clause to suspend the use of GMOs until scientific studies proved they could be cultivated safely.
But the government had not sent the letter and had only suspended the commercial use of maize seeds reliant on the MON 810 technology -- the only GMO seeds permitted for use developed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto -- until Feb. 9, he said.
That is the date by which the government is expected to have passed a new law outlining a framework for GMO use.
"What I hope is that the political will (of the people) will be respected," Bove said in an interview.
RTL radio questioned the timing of Bove's actions given that the government was awaiting the opinions of a committee of experts and that there could still be room for negotiation.
Senior government officials said last month that France would extend its ban beyond Feb. 9 and use the safeguard clause if doubts over the commercial use of GMO sees lingered.
But France would once again allow farmers to cultivate MON 810 maize, which has been cleared for use by the the European Union, if expert findings proved extremely positive, the officials said.
While GMO crops are common in the United States, France -- Europe's biggest grain producer -- along with other European nations remain highly suspicious of them.
Supporters say it could lead to hardy strains to help feed the world's poor. Opponents, which polls say include a majority of French people, fear they could harm humans and wildlife by triggering an uncontrolled spread of modified genes.
Guest ed. note: If sufficient water is available, a grown adult in reasonable physical condition can survive as much as 46 to 73 days without food. See, "How long can a person survive without food?", Alan D. Lieberson, Scientific American, Nov. 8, 2004, http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=how-long-can-a-person-sur&print=true If France fails to maintain its ban on GM seeds, we may shortly have conclusive proof that they are, indeed, 'suicide seeds'. (See, "Suicide Seeds? Biotechnology Meets the Developmental State," below.)
New plant study reveals a 'deeply hidden' layer of the transcriptome
- Salk Institute via Biology News Net, Dec. 27, 2007
Cells keep a close watch over the transcriptome - the totality of all parts of the genome that are expressed in any given cell at any given time. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of Missouri-Kansas City teamed up to peel back another layer of transcriptional regulation and gain new insight into how genomes work.
Converting the "genetic blueprint" into molecular building blocks requires two basic processes: transcription, which copies the information from DNA into RNA transcripts and takes place in the cell's nucleus, and translation, where the RNA serves as a template to manufacture proteins outside the nucleus.
But before transcripts can guide protein synthesis or take on regulatory functions, they have to undergo a strict mRNA surveillance system that degrades defective, obsolete, and surplus transcripts. In their study, published in the Dec. 28 issue of Cell, the scientists zoomed in on a specific subclass of transcripts that are under the control of the exosome, a molecular machine in charge of controlled RNA degradation.
"We found evidence for widespread exosome-mediated RNA quality control in plants and a 'deeply hidden' layer of the transcriptome that is tightly regulated by exosome activity," says Joseph R. Ecker, Ph.D., professor in the Plant Biology Laboratory and director of the Salk Institute Genomic Analysis Laboratory.
Since the exosome is in the business of chewing things up, the scientists inactivated the multi-unit complex to bring its otherwise invisible substrates to the fore. Then they combed the transcriptional landscape for hitherto unseen peaks of transcripts that now were untouched by the degrading force of the exosome complex and came up with a genome-wide atlas of Arabidopsis exosome targets.
"Our careful design and rigorous validation of the system for conditionally and quickly inactivating the exosome turned out to be really crucial for homing in on its RNA targets," explains Dmitry A. Belostotsky of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "On the other hand, genome-wide analyses of permanent genetic mutations often produce a complex mixture of direct and indirect effects, making it very hard to untangle. Thus, we think our strategy has a broadly-applicable value."
"From a genomics perspective it really allowed us to visualize what information from the genome is actually expressed," adds co-first author Brian D. Gregory, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Ecker's lab. "When you knock down exosome activity, you see changes in the transcriptome that are not visible under any other circumstance."
Since the common notion is that the exosome plays a central role in bulk RNA turnover, the researchers say, they expected to find the levels of all transcripts increasing when they inactivated the exosome complex. "But not everything is going up, instead the exosome mechanism seems to be very tightly regulated," says Ecker. "We didn't see regions that are known to be silenced to go up, instead we found a very specific group of transcripts that are regulated in this way."
Among them are regular protein-coding RNAs, RNA processing intermediates and hundreds of non-coding RNAs, the vast majority of which hadn't been described before. "These strange transcripts are associated with small RNA-producing loci as well as with repetitive sequence elements," says Gregory. "They are under very tight regulation by the exosome, but we still don't know exactly what this means."
"It is likely that these RNAs that are usually 'deeply hidden' become important for genome function or stability under some circumstances", adds co-first author Julia Chekanova, an assistant at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "We need to do more work to figure out what these circumstances are."
Pioneer modifies sorghum to boost nutrition in Africa
- Jerry Perkins, Des Moines Register, Jan. 6, 2008
Researchers at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. are helping develop transgenic sorghum that will be more nutritious for the 300 million Africans who eat the grain as a staple in their diets.
Genetic modification of crops is controversial in Africa, where some say the technology is unsuited for developing countries and potentially dangerous.
But the payoff, project sponsors say, will be better nutrition and improved health for many poor, subsistent African farmers and their families who grow sorghum in small food plots.
Pioneer is building better sorghum as part of the Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project, a nine-member consortium that won a five-year, $18.6 million grant, one of four funded by the Gates Foundation.
The project has developed its second generation of transgenic sorghum seeds, known as "ABS#2." The second-generation transgenic sorghum plants have more essential amino acids that are easily digestible, especially lysine, and more of vitamins A and E, along with more available iron and zinc.
Pioneer also is training African scientists from South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Kenya Agricultural Institute to work on the project in Johnston and back home in Africa.
Two of the African scientists - Kenneth Mburu of Kenya and Getu Beyene, an Ethiopia native working in South Africa - are now working on the project at Pioneer's laboratories in Johnston. Three African scientists preceded them.
Paul Anderson, research director for grain end-use improvement at Pioneer and the project's principal investigator, said the breakthrough in the second-generation sorghum was made possible by biotechnology, which uses technologies such as gene splicing to transfer traits from one plant to another.
"There is no way this could be done by (conventional) plant breeding alone," said Anderson.
Using Pioneer's biotechnology techniques, genes that boosted protein quality and digestibility and mineral availability were transferred to sorghum, Anderson said.
"They all seem to work as expected," he said. "This is a great success within a very short period of time."
Because the project involves a genetically modified plant, it is controversial in Africa.
An organization called GM Watch, which grew out of a news and research service in the United Kingdom, says it opposes biotechnology because corporations are using biotechnology and genetically modified plants to take advantage of poor farmers in developing countries.
Other organizations say biotechnology threatens Africa's biodiversity, traditional food crops, production systems and native cultures.
Anderson says Europeans are foisting such views on Africans.
In fact, Anderson said, it was an African - Florence Wambugu - who proposed the sorghum partnership with Pioneer, a unit of DuPont.
"This is a very heavily African-influenced project," Anderson said. "It was designed by Africans, in Africa, for Africa."
Wambugu was a member of the DuPont Biotech Advisory Panel and visited Pioneer's Johnston headquarters about six years ago, when Anderson told her about Pioneer's sorghum research.
When the call for proposals came from the Gates Foundation, Wambugu remembered Pioneer's work and suggested to Anderson that they seek a grant.
Anderson went to Pioneer's president, Paul Schickler, who was then vice president of international operations.
"He said I could do it if I had the time. At the time, I wondered," Anderson recalled. "It meant a lot of 4 a.m. phone calls to Nairobi, Kenya, setting up the proposal over a year and a half. I've spent a lot of personal time on the project, probably 200 hours."
Pioneer has donated about $5 million in patented sorghum genetics, seeds and know-how to the project, Anderson said.
Pioneer's Anderson said the consortium is working with other African countries that are interested in growing the modified sorghum. He declined to say which countries are interested because he doesn't want to tip off opposition groups.
Opposition in Africa to genetically modified crops like ABS#2 has made it more difficult to secure permits needed to test genetically modified sorghum.
Anderson said that the South African regulatory body that governs experimental crop trials rejected an application for greenhouse tests of the genetically modified sorghum. The consortium has appealed the rejection.
Field tests of the genetically modified sorghum have been conducted in the United States and Puerto Rico, Anderson said, and he hopes that experience will help the consortium overturn the denial of the permit in South Africa.
Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College, said the South African denial of the biofortified sorghum trial surprised its advocates. South Africa has been the only African government that has approved genetically modified crops.
"South Africa wanted to be extra careful with sorghum because it has wild relatives in Africa," said Paarlberg. "They wanted to take a look at the gene flow issues."
Paarlberg has written a book that will be published in March about how anti-biotechnology groups are trying to influence African governments.
"It would be a shame if unproven and undocumented biosafety risks block the (biofortified sorghum) project," Paarlberg said.
The genetically modified sorghum faces other hurdles, even if it is approved for production in Africa, Paarlberg said.
"There is no guarantee farmers would grow the biofortified seed," he said. "You need a distribution system to get the seeds in the hands of low-resource farmers."
Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms
- Rick Weiss, Washington Post, December 17, 2007
It has been 50 years since scientists first created DNA in a test tube, stitching ordinary chemical ingredients together to make life's most extraordinary molecule. Until recently, however, even the most sophisticated laboratories could make only small snippets of DNA -- an extra gene or two to be inserted into corn plants, for example, to help the plants ward off insects or tolerate drought.
Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic barrier: the creation of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA.
Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.
In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to "boot itself up," like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.
The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial -- and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive.
"This raises a range of big questions about what nature is and what it could be," said Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies science's effects on society. "Evolutionary processes are no longer seen as sacred or inviolable. People in labs are figuring them out so they can improve upon them for different purposes."
That unprecedented degree of control over creation raises more than philosophical questions, however. What kinds of organisms will scientists, terrorists and other creative individuals make? How will these self-replicating entities be contained? And who might end up owning the patent rights to the basic tools for synthesizing life?
Some experts are worried that a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core "operating system" for artificial life and are poised to become the Microsofts of synthetic biology. That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands.
"We're heading into an era where people will be writing DNA programs like the early days of computer programming, but who will own these programs?" asked Drew Endy, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At the core of synthetic biology's new ascendance are high-speed DNA synthesizers that can produce very long strands of genetic material from basic chemical building blocks: sugars, nitrogen-based compounds and phosphates.
Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on a computer just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then use a synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual DNA. Experiments with "natural" DNA indicate that when a faux chromosome gets plopped into a cell, it will be able to direct the destruction of the cell's old DNA and become its new "brain" -- telling the cell to start making a valuable chemical, for example, or a medicine or a toxin, or a bio-based gasoline substitute.
Unlike conventional biotechnology, in which scientists induce modest genetic changes in cells to make them serve industrial purposes, synthetic biology involves the large-scale rewriting of genetic codes to create metabolic machines with singular purposes.
"I see a cell as a chassis and power supply for the artificial systems we are putting together," said Tom Knight of MIT, who likes to compare the state of cell biology today to that of mechanical engineering in 1864. That is when the United States began to adopt standardized thread sizes for nuts and bolts, an advance that allowed the construction of complex devices from simple, interchangeable parts.
If biology is to morph into an engineering discipline, it is going to need similarly standardized parts, Knight said. So he and colleagues have started a collection of hundreds of interchangeable genetic components they call BioBricks, which students and others are already popping into cells like Lego pieces.
So far, synthetic biology is still semi-synthetic, involving single-cell organisms such as bacteria and yeast that have a blend of natural and synthetic DNA. The cells can reproduce, a defining trait of life. But in many cases that urge has been genetically suppressed, along with other "distracting" biological functions, to maximize productivity.
"Most cells go about life like we do, with the intention to make more of themselves after eating," said John Pierce, a vice president at DuPont in Wilmington, Del., a leader in the field. "But what we want them to do is make stuff we want."
J. Craig Venter, chief executive of Synthetic Genomics in Rockville, knows what he wants his cells to make: ethanol, hydrogen and other exotic fuels for vehicles, to fill a market that has been estimated to be worth $1 trillion.
In a big step toward that goal, Venter has now built the first fully artificial chromosome, a strand of DNA many times longer than anything made by others and laden with all the genetic components a microbe needs to get by.
Details of the process are under wraps until the work is published, probably early next year. But Venter has already shown that he can insert a "natural" chromosome into a cell and bring it to life. If a synthetic chromosome works the same way, as expected, the first living cells with fully artificial genomes could be growing in dishes by the end of 2008.
The plan is to mass-produce a plain genetic platform able to direct the basic functions of life, then attach custom-designed DNA modules that can compel cells to make synthetic fuels or other products.
It will be a challenge to cultivate fuel-spewing microbes, Venter acknowledged. Among other problems, he said, is that unless the fuel is constantly removed, "the bugs will basically pickle themselves."
But the hurdles are not insurmountable. LS9 Inc., a company in San Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that have been reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel alternative from a diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are the bugs' synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be able to sell the fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.
At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic bacteria are living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun and woven into high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a pinstripe suit made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on track to become the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a pharmaceutical.
Engineers at DuPont studied blueprints of E. coli's metabolism and used synthetic DNA to help the bacteria make PDO far more efficiently than could have been done with ordinary genetic engineering.
"If you want to sell it at a dollar a gallon . . . you need every bit of efficiency you can muster," said DuPont's Pierce. "So we're running these bugs to their limits."
Yet another application is in medicine, where synthetic DNA is allowing bacteria and yeast to produce the malaria drug artemisinin far more efficiently than it is made in plants, its natural source.
Bugs such as these will seem quaint, scientists say, once fully synthetic organisms are brought on line to work 24/7 on a range of tasks, from industrial production to chemical cleanups. But the prospect of a flourishing synbio economy has many wondering who will own the valuable rights to that life.
In the past year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been flooded with aggressive synthetic-biology claims. Some of Venter's applications, in particular, "are breathtaking in their scope," said Knight. And with Venter's company openly hoping to develop "an operating system for biologically-based software," some fear it is seeking synthetic hegemony.
"We've asked our patent lawyers to be reasonable and not to be overreaching," Venter said. But competitors such as DuPont, he said, "have just blanketed the field with patent applications."
Safety concerns also loom large. Already a few scientists have made viruses from scratch. The pending ability to make bacteria -- which, unlike viruses, can live and reproduce in the environment outside of a living body -- raises new concerns about contamination, contagion and the potential for mischief.
"Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet," concluded a recent report by the Ottawa-based ETC Group, one of dozens of advocacy groups that want a ban on releasing synthetic organisms pending wider societal debate and regulation.
"The danger is not just bio-terror but bio-error," the report says.
Many scientists say the threat has been overblown. Venter notes that his synthetic genomes are spiked with special genes that make the microbes dependent on a rare nutrient not available in nature. And Pierce, of DuPont, says the company's bugs are too spoiled to survive outdoors.
"They are designed to grow in a cosseted environment with very high food levels," Pierce said. "You throw this guy out on the ground, he just can't compete. He's toast."
"We've heard that before," said Jim Thomas, ETC Group's program manager, noting that genes engineered into crops have often found their way into other plants despite assurances to the contrary. "The fact is, you can build viruses, and soon bacteria, from downloaded instructions on the Internet," Thomas said. "Where's the governance and oversight?"
In fact, government controls on trade in dangerous microbes do not apply to the bits of DNA that can be used to create them. And while some industry groups have talked about policing the field themselves, the technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before "bio hackers" working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.
"The cat is out of the bag," said Jay Keasling, chief of synthetic biology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Andrew Light, an environmental ethicist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said synthetic biology poses a conundrum because of its double-edged ability to both wreak biological havoc and perhaps wean civilization from dirty 20th-century technologies and petroleum-based fuels.
"For the environmental community, I think this is going to be a really hard choice," Light said.
Depending on how people adjust to the idea of man-made life -- and on how useful the first products prove to be -- the field could go either way, Light said.
"It could be that synthetic biology is going to be like cellphones: so overwhelming and ubiquitous that no one notices it anymore. Or it could be like abortion -- the kind of deep disagreement that will not go away."
The question, if the abortion model holds, is which side of the synthetic biology debate will get to call itself "pro-life."
Suicide Seeds? Biotechnology Meets the Developmental State
- Ronald J. Herring, Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, Dec. 17, 2007
On September 7, 2001, India's then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced a national policy with the vision of "shaping biotechnology into a premier precision tool of the future for creation of wealth and ensuring social justice - especially for the welfare of the poor." Biotechnology, in the aims of the policy, was to combat obdurate diseases and nutritional deficiencies, increase agricultural production, and protect the environment. Scientifically, these are all plausible - though distal and aspirational - claims.
Inevitably, the question that must be asked is: Why would a democratic, developmental state promote a technology characterized by globally-prominent Indian activists as 'suicidal' - destructive of farmers, agriculture and nature, the very constituencies it claimed to promote and protect?
To date, India's primary experience with genetically engineered organisms is with Bt cotton. Gurcharan Das recently noted in a column in The Times of India: "India has doubled its production of cotton in the past five years. It crossed the US last year to become the world's second largest producer and is expected to overtake China in 2009 to become world's number one. India's cotton revolution is the subject of constant discussion at global agricultural forums, but in India almost no one has heard of it. Our media talks only about the suicides of cotton farmers. This is because environmental activists have been spreading disinformation and misleading the public. "
Opponents of transgenics - strategically called "Genetically Modified Organisms" or "GMOs" -- reject these claims. More radically, transgenic seeds were framed first as "suicide seeds," imbued with "terminator technology" that prevented saving or replanting of seeds. This bio-cultural abomination was attributed [falsely] to Monsanto, thus buttressing nationalist critiques of multinational corporations in a globalizing India. More darkly, new seeds were linked to widely reported waves of farmer suicides, as well as deaths of sheep and cattle. The public is understandably mystified by the numerous media reports that "Bt cotton has failed" when it is clear that more and more farmers and firms are taking it up.
The cognitive rift between these framings of Bt cotton - miracle seed or suicide seed - could not be wider.
Failure of opponents to block Bt cotton was not caused by Delhi or Monsanto, but by the agency of farmers recognizing their interests. Reciprocally, activists failed to listen to farmers, for reasons I have documented in explaining the failure of "Operation Cremate Monsanto."
Globally, the battle over biotechnology is largely a contest of metropolitan middle classes engaged in proxy wars on the terrain of relatively poor farmers. Ironically, opposition to biotechnology in India has been largely an urban phenomenon, a creature of media and various websites. Opponents are backed by international NGOs and aid projects brokered through claims of indigenous authenticity. Reciprocally, middle-class proponents occupied positions within the state and formal-sector firms and organizations. Farmers were largely absent, though everyone speaks in their name.
Between these camps, even the most basic facts of biotechnology are contested, as one can see in a representative sample from English-language posts on India Together. A surprisingly large part of opposition failure is explained by its grounding - both materially and discursively - in a European narrative that is alien to India.
Where global discourse serves local mobilization especially badly is on issues of monopoly power and multinational control. There were no patents in India on Bt cotton technology, nor any terminators. Rather than monopoly and control, local competition with Mahyco-Monsanto is intense and extensive. Underground, technically illegal transgenic cotton was spreading before Monsanto sold a single seed in India. When Delhi declared these seeds illegal, in 2001, "cottage industry" production of new Bt hybrids ensued, especially in rural Gujarat. The irony is that the suicide seeds proved so robust that they sprouted and spread beyond the control of either Monsanto or Delhi.
Similar dynamics characterize other countries from Vietnam to Brazil. Regardless of urban discourses on biotechnology, farmers are taking initiatives: if transgenic seeds are either too expensive or bureaucratically restricted, they make, trade and save their own stealth seeds.
Stealth seeds thus defy European narratives of power in bio-property. Likewise, activists opposed to biotechnology misrecognize the dynamics of markets, despite intense scrutiny of neo-liberalism in contemporary India. The legal transgenic seed market is intensely competitive and prices have dropped significantly. Firms are continually crowding in with new seeds and farmers' choices continue to expand. Bt cotton now presents a smorgasbord of dozens of hybrids, some indigenous, some foreign - such as Nath Seeds in cooperation with a Chinese public sector firm - and some home-brewed by farmers for the gray market. Facing market discipline, why would farmers and firms take on a technology that was failing, or worse, fatal?
The most astonishing lapse in the opposition discourse - and one reason for its failure in rural India - is the deep cultural urban bias that treats 'peasants' as incapable of agency or rationality. Why would farmers plant suicide seeds year after year? Why could farmers not engage in the same opportunistic appropriation of intellectual property that characterizes other industries - software, pharmaceuticals, films, music, couture, among others - in cities around India and the world? As one Gujarati farmer told me in 2005, in English, "This is not rocket science."
... continued at http://casi.ssc.upenn.edu/india/iit_Herring2.htm
Ronald J. Herring is Professor of Government at Cornell University and Team Co-leader and Faculty Fellow of the Institute for the Social Sciences 2006-09 theme project "Contentious Knowledge: Science, Social Science and Social Movements." http://www.socialsciences.cornell.edu/0609/contentious_desc.html
Biotech firm plans to fund GM rice crops with carbon credits
- David Adam, Guardian Unlimited, Jan. 8, 2008
Money paid by green consumers to offset their flights and by companies that go carbon-neutral will be used to fund the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops under plans drawn up by a US biotechnology company.
Arcadia Biosciences is working with the Chinese government to reward farmers in China that grow the firm's genetically modified (GM) rice, with carbon credits that they can sell for cash.
The credits would be sold on the global carbon trading market set up under the Kyoto protocol, the international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which is used by governments, companies and individuals to offset their pollution. Arcadia plans to expand the Chinese scheme to more crops in other countries, including Britain.
Arcadia says its GM rice requires less nitrogen fertiliser, and so farmers that grow it will lower their emissions of nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas some 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Swapping global rice supply to the GM version, the company says, would save the equivalent of 50m tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, and generate £750m in carbon credits for farmers.
Eric Rey, the president and chief executive of the California-based Arcadia, told the Guardian: "A technology that allows farmers to participate in carbon credit markets will give agriculture a clear incentive to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It's a way for farmers, and us, to make money, while doing something positive to help the environment."
World agriculture accounts for 17% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transport sector. Rey aims to have the Chinese scheme running by 2012, in time to take advantage of new carbon markets expected to be created by a successor treaty to Kyoto. The first steps towards such a treaty were taken at the UN climate meeting in Bali last month.
Arcadia is working to apply the reduced-nitrogen technology to GM wheat, rape seed oil, sugarbeet, maize, sugarcane, cotton and turf for golf courses and landscape gardening, which could also be grown in exchange for carbon credits. None of the crops have yet been commercialised, though Arcadia has sold several licenses to companies to use them, including oil seed rape to Monsanto.
Mr Rey said: "This could be used in all major crops around the world. Considering the growth in global population and the need to increase food production to feed them, this technology could be an important tool to minimise the impact of agriculture on global warming." Officials inside the UK government's Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are advising the company on how to develop the idea.
The widespread use of nitrogen fertiliser is reckoned to account for about one-third of agricultural emissions. Less than half the nitrogen is typically absorbed by crops, with the rest leaking into the soil and water supplies, or released to the air as nitrous oxide. The Arcadia technology inserts a gene that improves the nitrogen uptake, which means less fertiliser is needed to produce a given yield of crop.
The Chinese project is in Ningxia, a tiny mountainous province in the north of the country, where fertiliser use is among the highest in the country. Working with local officials, the company is conducting experiments to measure the emissions from conventional rice - information required by the United Nations before they would allow the GM scheme into the Clean Development Mechanism, which rewards clean technology projects with carbon credits.
Arcadia's GM rice has not yet been planted there; the company must first get regulatory approval, as well as convince the government to allow farmers to sell the GM rice for food. China has commercialised GM cotton and minor food crops such as tomatoes, chilli and sweet peppers, but has drawn the line so far at staple foods including rice, corn and soybeans.
Rey said the potential of the technology to tackle climate change should make critics reconsider their blanket opposition to GM crops. Although GM crops are widely grown in countries such as Canada and the US, and are expanding rapidly in mainland Europe, they remain controversial, partly because they are perceived only to benefit the biotech companies and farmers.
Clare Oxborrow, GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "We have never taken an absolutist position on GM crops but it's too early to say if we would accept something like this given all the concerns about safety and environmental impact of GM. We would need to have a proper debate, but at the moment we simply don't know enough about the impact of this technology or whether it would deliver."
The Eyes of Nye 104 Cloning (Pt. 1)
- RideTheSpiral11235, YouTube, Jan. 7, 2007
Finally someone insightfully tackles today's issues from a scientific perspective. In Bill Nye's new show The Eyes of Nye, Bill shows you that the possibilities of cloning reach far beyond creating genetically exact duplicates of animals or human beings. The same techniques could potentially be used to cure diseases or repair damaged organs. Bill talks with a developmental biologist about why cloning animals is so difficult, shows how cloning works, and visits a lab where stem cells are used to repair damaged spinal cords.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net