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January 18, 2008


Biotech Just Beginning; Better Bugs for Butanol; Sing the PCR Song


* US OKs Food from Cloned Animals
* Better Bugs for Making Butanol
* Monsanto: Biotech Just Beginning
* France Defends Crop Ban
* Starbucks Less Organic
* No nano in organic foods
* Protesters chop down trees
* Music Video: For The Love Of PCR


US Gives Blessing to Food from Cloned Animals

- Missy Ryan, Reuters via Planet Ark, Jan. 16, 2008


WASHINGTON - The US government ruled on Tuesday that meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring is as safe as other food, but pressed firms that produce clones to hold off on bringing them into the food supply.

"Extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any subtle hazards that might indicate food consumption risks in healthy clones of cattle, swine or goats," the Food and Drug Administration said in a final risk assessment that confirmed preliminary findings from 2006.

The FDA said it did not have enough information to make an assertion about cloned sheep.

The ruling was the latest twist after years of debate over the reproductive technology, which advocates say will provide consumers with top-quality food by replicating prized animals that can breed highly productive offspring.

The cloning industry, made up so far of only a handful of firms, expects that it will be the offspring of cloned animals, not the costly clones themselves, that would eventually provide meat or milk to US consumers.

There are currently about 570 cloned animals in the United States, but the livestock industry has so far followed a voluntary ban on marketing food from the animals.

Yet even as the FDA unveiled its final assessment, the Agriculture Department asked the cloning industry to extend that ban during a "transition" period.

USDA said it will reach out to livestock producers, cloning firms, trading partners and others to lay a smooth path for selling clone-derived food in the future.

It could take four or five years before consumers are able to buy products derived from cloned animals.


While scientific studies appear to support the cloning industry's claims that the technology is safe, the topic remains controversial even within the agriculture industry.

Some dairy firms oppose cloning, betting that consumers will shun goods they see linked to cloning technology.

Others believe that more investigation is needed before concluding that cloning is safe -- especially after a year in which consumer confidence was marred by numerous food scares -- or oppose it on moral or religious grounds.

"Despite widespread public disapproval, FDA is not planning to require labeling of products from cloned animals, keeping already wary consumers in the dark," Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group, said in a statement.

Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the cloning industry must now convince the public why cloning is useful.

"Just because the technology is safe, it doesn't mean that as a society there is reason to embrace it," he said.

Jaffe expects Congress or some states may try to impose additional restrictions on marketing or labeling.

The Senate has passed a measure that would delay FDA approval until the completion of more studies.

Several major food companies quickly stated that they are not signing up, at least right away. Tyson Foods Inc, the largest US meat producer, said on Tuesday it has no immediate plans to buy cloned livestock.

The FDA cloning decision comes as biotechnology becomes an ever more important part of global agriculture.

Last week, the European Food Safety Authority made an interim ruling about food from cloned animals and their offspring, saying it was unlikely there was any difference from food derived from traditionally bred animals. (Additional reporting by Bob Burgdorfer in Chicago and Maggie Fox in Washington; editing by Russell Blinch and Matthew Lewis)


Better Bugs for Making Butanol

Engineered E. coli proves efficient at churning out the biofuel.

- Alexandra M. Goho, MIT Technology Review, Jan. 16, 2008


In a push to find better biofuels to reduce gasoline consumption and lower greenhouse-gas emissions, scientists have genetically engineered E. coli that is highly efficient in producing butanol, a promising new type of biofuel. The new technology could speed up the development of butanol biofuels into a cost-effective alternative to ethanol.

While ethanol is the main biofuel on the market today, energy firms are increasingly looking to alternatives such as butanol. "It has many attractive properties," says Jim McMillan, manager of biorefining process R&D at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Bioenergy Center, in Golden, CO. Because butanol packs more energy per gallon than ethanol does, cars running on butanol get better mileage. And, unlike ethanol, it doesn't mix with water, so it can be shipped in existing petroleum pipelines without causing problems.

A number of research groups are engineering microbes that can convert sugar from various feedstocks into butanol. Most of these groups rely on the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum, which naturally makes a form of butanol called 1-butanol. "But Clostridium is not easy to deal with," says James Liao, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It grows slowly, it's very fastidious, and it's not easy to genetically manipulate." Despite decades of tinkering by scientists, the microbe still can't produce enough butanol to make it economically viable as a transportation fuel, Liao says.

Instead, he and his colleagues turned to E. coli. Although the bacterium does not produce butanol naturally, it is easy to modify and grows fast. Instead of tweaking the pathway that the microbes employ for fermenting sugar into alcohol, Liao reasoned that he could program E. coli to produce butanol by diverting some of the microorganism's metabolites into alcohol production. These metabolites, called keto acids, are involved in the synthesis of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

To make butanol from keto acids, the researchers inserted two different nonnative genes into E. coli. The first gene came from a microbe commonly used in the production of cheese. The gene codes for an enzyme that converts keto acids into aldehydes. The second gene, derived from yeast, codes for an enzyme that converts aldehydes into butanol.

Initially, when linked together in E. coli, the two genes allowed the microbe to produce small amounts of butanol. With further genetic modifications, Liao was able to dramatically increase the efficiency of the process. For instance, deleting certain genes and boosting the activity of others increased the amount of keto acids available for conversion into butanol. With all the combined manipulations, the engineered microbes achieved an efficiency high enough for industrial use, says Liao.

Gevo, a biofuels startup based in Pasadena, CA, has acquired an exclusive license to commercialize Liao's technology. (Liao is on the company's scientific advisory board.) "It's a real breakthrough," says Mathew Peters, Gevo's chief scientific officer. Not only did Liao improve the efficiency of the process, but he also designed his microbes to produce a particular form of butanol called isobutanol. "We believe isobutanol is a superior fuel," says Peters. Compared with 1-butanol, isobutanol has a higher octane number, which reduces knocking in the vehicle's engine.

What's more, the biochemical pathway Liao designed for making isobutanol can be transferred to other microbes. In addition to investigating E. coli, Gevo is looking at different microorganisms that could be modified in the same way. "We're interested in any organism that will make the process cheaper," says Peters.

Gevo isn't alone in its pursuit of a better butanol-producing bug. In June 2006, BP and DuPont joined efforts to develop butanol. .

Last June, BP and DuPont, along with Associated British Foods, announced their plans to build a biobutanol pilot plant at an existing BP site in England. The plant, which will use sugar beet as a feedstock, is expected to begin operations in 2009, with the ultimate goal of commercializing butanol after 2010.

According to Peters, Gevo plans to make a decision by the end of the year on whether to go ahead with its own plans to build a butanol plant. In the meantime, certain technological hurdles still need to be overcome to make butanol cost competitive, he says. Mainly, the microbes need to get faster at producing butanol, and their tolerance to isobutanol, which is toxic to the organisms, must improve. Still, Peters expects Gevo to resolve these issues in the coming months.


Guest ed. note: For more information comparing butanol, ethanol, methanol and gasoline, visit


Monsanto Says Biotech Just Beginning

Monsanto Says Biotech Use Is Still in Early Stages

- Christopher Leonard, Associated Press, Jan. 17, 2008


CREVE COEUR, Mo. -- Monsanto Co. executives told shareholders Wednesday that record profits in 2007 are just the beginning, with growing acceptance of genetically engineered crops expected to deliver new business opportunities in coming decades.

"It's still like being back in the '60s with computers," Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley said. "This is an industry that is very much in the beginning of its cycle."

Such predictions might have seemed far-fetched just five years ago, when Monsanto faced tough global resistance to its engineered crops -- derisively called "Frankenfood" by critics. Trade barriers kept the seeds out of many European countries and important foreign markets.

But in a sign of the times, the world's largest seed company is developing its first strain of biotech crops for a foreign country, with pest-resistant soybeans for the Brazilian market. Robust sales in the U.S., where a majority of corn and soybean crops are genetically engineered, pushed Monsanto to upgrade its 2008 outlook and predict that annual gross profit will rise from $4.29 billion in 2007 to more than $8 billion in 2012.

Chairman and Chief Executive Hugh Grant told investors at the company's annual shareholder meeting here that growing demand for food and crop-based fuels will put ever-greater challenges on farmers to grow more crops per acre -- and present Monsanto with more chances to sell its patented seeds that ward off pests and resist herbicides.

"It's going to be a really different place for our children and grandchildren by the year 2030," Grant said, noting that demand for energy is expected to double while the world population is expected to grow 33 percent by then.

He said Monsanto's pipeline of new products is geared to help farmers grow this feed and fuel by boosting the amount of crops they can produce on a per-acre basis.

While drought-tolerant corn and pest-resistant soybeans might not be the kinds of products that consumers can directly appreciate, Monsanto is betting such crops will be in high demand from farmers around the world. Fraley said Monsanto's research and development pipeline could generate new products that increase sales by $5 billion a year by 2020.

Fraley said Monsanto and other companies are just beginning to unlock the power of genetically engineering plants. In the mid-1990s, the company's blockbuster products were Roundup Ready crops, which contained a gene that made them resistant to Monsanto's popular herbicide. The trait made it easier, and cheaper, for farmers to control weeds.

But the days of a single-gene product seem over. By 2010, Monsanto plans to release a strain of corn with eight engineered traits, Grant said.

At the shareholder meeting Wednesday, Monsanto elected three directors to its board, rehired its accounting company and struck down two provisions that would have stripped legal protection from board members and forced Grant to give up his role as chairman of the board.

As the crowd filed out of Monsanto's auditorium, shareholder Carlos Berger said he couldn't be happier with the company's stock. A resident of nearby Olivette, Berger said he's owned the stock for years. Back in 2002, the stock was trading around $5 a share. This year it has traded around an all-time high of $129.28 per share. The stock fell $10.64 Wednesday to close at $112.70.


France Defends GMO Crop Ban, Says Temporary

- Sybille de La Hamaide, Reuters via Planet Ark, Jan. 16, 2008


PARIS - French ministers tried on Tuesday to calm tensions following the government's decision to ban cultivation of the sole genetically modified (GMO) crop grown in the country, stressing that the move was temporary.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said at the end of last week that France would activate a "safeguard clause" in European law to suspend the commercial use of MON 810, a maize developed by US biotech giant Monsanto.

The decision was welcomed by anti-GMO groups, but it drew fire from farmers, seed producers and scientists, some of whom helped pen a report underscoring doubts over the MON 810, which they said could contaminate other crops and hurt biodiversity.

The report triggered the government's decision on the ban.

An increasing number of members of parliament from the ruling centre-right UMP also criticised the government for basing its decision on a panel's controversial opinion.

But Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo told the National Assembly that the clampdown on MON 810 was a precaution that would only last until the release of an European re-evaluation of the crop in the coming months.

"It is a precaution measure that applies for a certain period lasting until the setting up of a European stance (on the MON 810)," Borloo said.

The Commission has approved the use of MON 810 around the 27-nation bloc but the pesticide must be re-evaluate in the framework of a renewal of its licence.

EU authorities will also have to say whether the France's safeguard clause is justified. When a country activates the safeguard procedure it has to provide the European Commission, with proof there is new scientific evidence justifying a ban.


Borloo insisted that biotechnologies were crucial for France, especially for its farming sector.

"In terms of agriculture it is doubly crucial for us. We have trouble feeding six billion people, nine billion tomorrow, with less water resources, less arable land and probably less productive soil," Borloo said.

"It is crucial for France, which is the first agri-food producer in Europe, it is crucial for employment and it is crucial for our country's attractiveness," he said.

French Education Minister Valerie Pecresse stressed that France's ban only applied to MON 810, not all GMOs. Green lobbies and activist Jose Bove have protested the use of GMOs in general.

"Talking about GMOs in general makes no sense. Each genetically modified plant is a particular case which must be examined specifically," she told the assembly.

The MON 810 technology, which is also used by other seed makers, is designed to resist the European corn borer, a pest that attacks maize stalks and thrives in warmer climates.

Monsanto says the protein contained in its maize has selective toxicity but is harmless to humans, fish and wildlife.

"There is nothing in common between a poplar grown to make biofuels, tobacco that may be used in an anti-cancer drug or maize for animal feed," she added.

She also called on researchers to keep on working on plant biotechnologies.

"If they renounce, if they leave the country, we will have turned our back on our future," she said. "It's out of the question."


Starbucks Less Organic

- Janet Adamy, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2008


Starbucks Corp. plans to stop selling organic milk at its stores next month.

The Seattle coffee giant has stocked organic milk at U.S. shops since 2001. Starbucks spokesman Brandon Borrman said the original reason for offering it was to cater to customers who wanted milk from cows that weren't given recombinant bovine growth hormone.

Earlier this month, Starbucks completed the switch to serving milk only from cows that weren't given the artificial growth hormone, which helps cows produce more milk.

For its turnaround effort, Starbucks has said it plans to reduce the number of offerings at its stores while adding more-exciting products. The company said this change is unrelated to the turnaround plan. Organic milk is scheduled to come off the menu Feb. 26. Starbucks has charged extra for drinks made with it.

Drinks with organic milk account for less than 1% of Starbucks' beverage sales, said Michelle Gass, the company's senior vice president of global strategy. "Far and away, the No. 1 reason people are purchasing organic milk is because [it lacks] the growth hormone," she said.

In 2006, sales of organic dairy products in the U.S. grew 25% to $2.67 billion, making it the second fastest-growing organic food category behind meat, according to the Organic Trade Association. Some quick-service restaurants, including Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., have been adding organic ingredients to their menus.

Organic products are grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as without hormones and antibiotics, according to the Agriculture Department.


No nano in organic foods, says UK certifier

- Dominique Patton, Food Production Daily, Jan. 16, 2007


The use of nanomaterials has been banned from organic foods by the UK's Soil Association, the leading certifier of organic products in the country.

The organization said yesterday that nanoparticles, tiny compounds believed by some to offer advantages in formulation, especially in health foods, are made by "potentially toxic technology that poses a serious new threat to human health".

It claims to be the first organisation in the world to take action against nanotechnology although development of the technology is highly controversial. Most consumers say they do not want nanotechnology to be used in food applications, according to survey results published last month by German risk assessor BfR.

Yet an estimated $9 billion is currently being spent each year on research into nanotechnology. Much of it is going towards the development of cosmetics and health products with firms such as L'Oreal, Unilever and Lancome already using the tiny particles in their products.

In food too, nanotechnology is being seen by many as a key source of innovation. More than 600 nanofood products are already available on the global market, according to recent data from the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy (HKC). Moreover, HKC predicts a change of 40 to 60 per cent in the food industry by 2015 as a result of nanotechnology.

Leading ingredient firms Danisco, Aarhus Karlshamn and Arla Foods are backing development of the technology through the NanoFood consortium. Applications in the food sector include improving the delivery of nutrients or flavours using nanoparticles.

But the Soil Association says there is not enough evidence yet to support such developments emerging on the marketplace.

"There is little scientific understanding about how these substances affect living organisms, indeed initial studies show negative effects," said the Soil Association in a statement.

Professor Vyvyan Howard, a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Ulster, noted that many nanotechnology applications are "not threatening at all", such as nano-structured surfaces for self cleaning glass.

"But in the areas of health and beauty and food more research must be done. There is considerable evidence that nanoparticles are toxic and potentially hazardous."

The Soil Association said its position was at the core of the organic movement's values of protecting human health.

Gundula Azeez, Soil Association policy manager, said: "We are deeply concerned at the government's failure to follow scientific advice and regulate products. There should be an immediate freeze on the commercial release of nanomaterials until there is a sound body of scientific research into all the health impacts."

He compared the developments with genetically modified foods, another area that has been controversial, with many consumers suspicious of the technology involved.


GE protesters chop down trees at research institute

- Juliet Rowan, New Zealand Herald, Jan. 17, 2008


Nineteen trees, some genetically modified, have been cut down in an apparent protest against Crown forestry research institute Scion.

Those responsible for the attack dug under the Rotorua institute's perimeter fence and left behind a spade with a sticker saying "GE Free New Zealand".

It is unknown exactly when the attack occurred but the trees were discovered slashed on Monday and police were called.

The felled radiata pine included both genetically modified and unmodified trees being grown as part of a field trial.

Police said last night they were unsure who was responsible for the attack but were conducting forensic tests on items seized at the scene.

Scion said it was the first attack of its kind at the property and there was no evidence that plant matter or soil had been removed by the saboteurs.

Acting chief executive Elspeth MacRae said even if this had happened, it would not pose a danger to the outside environment.

"The genes involved in this research were sourced from organisms that occur naturally in the New Zealand environment and are already present throughout the country," she said.

Scion would not allow the Herald to photograph the site, saying it was private property and remained part of an active police investigation.

The institute is located in a 114ha business park shared by other companies, next to Whakarewarewa Forest.

Formerly known as Forest Research, Scion manages forests and conducts research on genetically improving trees.

It also develops biomaterials, which are seen as a major potential export earner.

Biomaterials are natural resources transformed into industrial products using chemical, physical and engineering/manufacturing technologies.

Ms MacRae said Scion would review security at the institute in the wake of the tree incident.


Guest ed. note: see also, Vandalism destroys knowledge and opportunity, Life Sciences Network (press release), Jan. 17, 2008, http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/SC0801/S00027.htm

Scientists outraged by GE tree vandalism, New Zealand Press Association, Jan. 16, 2008, http://nz.news.yahoo.com/080116/3/3m6p.html


For The Love Of PCR

- Null Hypothesis - The Journal of Unlikely Science, Jan. 16, 2008


[music video]

PCR, or the polymerase chain reaction, is used by molecular scientists to make loads of copies of a bit of DNA so that they can go and do a bunch of clever things to it. On the whole it's a pretty dry and mundane subject... or so you'd think. But think again my friends. Here's a song that might just change your minds. Get ready for Bio-Rad's PCR Song.

LYRICS - The PCR song by Bio-Rad

There was a time when to amplify DNA,
You had to grow tons and tons of tiny cells.
Then along came a guy named Dr. Kary Mullis,
Said you can amplify in vitro just as well.

Just mix your template with a buffer and some primers,
Nucleotides and polymerases, too.
Denaturing, annealing, and extending.
Well it's amazing what heating and cooling and heating will do.

PCR, when you need to detect mutations.
PCR, when you need to recombine.
PCR, when you need to find out who the daddy is.
PCR, when you need to solve a crime.

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