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January 23, 2008


French Ban Fracas Continues; Beet Plans Spark Suit; Companies Desert Int'l Project


* Spain rejects French maize ban
* S.Africa may act on French ban
* EU lawyers reject Poland's biotech ban
* Beet growers bet on Roundup
* Biotech critics challenge sugar beet
* Biotech companies desert international project
* Uganda Cotton Trials Approved
* Plant based treatment for Gaucher's disease
* Trigenomic disease-beating wheat
* 'Fabricator' constructs walking DNA
* Diatom genes that may level engineering hurdle
* GM food is scientifically safe
* Conference: The Future of Agricultural Biotechnology
* Education: EBiosafety Master


Spain rejects the "safety clause" by France to GM maize

- Translation by our London correspondent of "España rechaza cláusula de salvaguarda de Francia a maíz transgénico," Jan. 16, 2008

http://www.portalbesana.es/jsp/lstNoticias.jsp?id=1&ch=4&ca=-1&cu=-1&v=1&cm=&sc=&cd=22548 EFEAGRO

Madrid - General Secretary of Agriculture, Josep Puxeu, criticized today, the "safeguard clause" applied for France in a unilateral way to the cultivation of GM maize MON810 developed by Monsanto.

After the inauguration of the "First National Shepherds Congress" held today in Madrid, Puxeu declared that Spanish position about GMOs always follows the one adopted within the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Puxeu rejected "unilateral decisions" which end up distorting the international markets of grains, affecting countries like Spain, which are short of grain and need to import it from third countries.

He declared that the food safety of GMOs approved by EFSA is not questioned, and reminded that France is one of the most important corn growing and exporting countries.

The French Government announced that it will invoke a "safeguard clause" on MON 810 cultivation which will be in place until the re-evaluation by European authorities of the approval for commercialization for this transgenic plant.

He attributed this decision to the conclusions by the High Authority about GMOs, which stated there are "new scientific elements" and recommended new "complementary evaluations about health and environmental effects" of this maize from Monsanto.


Agri dept notes French ban on GMO maize variety

- Bizcommunity.com, Jan, 21, 2008


The French government recently placed a ban on the cultivation of Monsanto's MON 810, a genetically modified maize cultivar resistant to the European maize stalk borer.

This decision was based on the outcome of a report issued by a panel of experts in France, constituting the committee of High Authority on GMO's, who were called upon to re-evaluate MON 810 GM Maize.

In South Africa all activities involving genetically modified organisms are regulated under the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act, 1997.

In accordance with the provisions of this Act, MON 810 GM maize, owned by Monsanto, was approved for general release in South Africa in 1997.

Prior to its approval, this GM maize was thoroughly evaluated through a multidisciplinary process and consideration was given to its potential impact on the environment, human and animal health.

"The [South African] Department of Agriculture is committed to manage a biosafety regulatory process to contribute towards the safe application and use of GMOs in the country," the department said.

"Consideration will therefore be given to the findings of the French Government report.

"If this report presents new and relevant scientific evidence, a review of the decision with regard to the general release of the MON 810 will be considered."


EU lawyers say no to Poland's biotech ban

- Jeremy Smith and Barbara Sladkowska, Reuters, Jan. 21, 2008


BRUSSELS - European Commission lawyers have stopped Poland's move to ban trade and plantings of genetically modified (GMO) seeds, saying it had no scientific justification, the EU's Official Journal said on Monday.

Poland's plans for what amounted to a national GMO ban, announced last year, quickly drew criticism from experts at the EU executive who routinely scrutinize any such proposals to check that they comply fully with EU law.

Ahead of the announcement by EU lawyers, Polish Agriculture Minister Marek Sawicki said the new centre-right government was planning to give way and allow GMO seeds by changing a law that was to come into effect in August.

"We are working on a bill which will eliminate the ban on using feed with GMO components in Poland," Sawicki told Parkiet daily. "We don't have another option. It is a issue of Polish regulations complying with EU law," he added.

As tested on several occasions in the past, the Commission takes the view that if a region wants to ban GMO crops or products, such restrictions must be scientifically justified and crop-specific.

It also believes that a proposed ban mustn't be politically motivated, nor a blanket GMO restriction that might distort the EU's single trading market.

Poland did not provide new scientific evidence to justify its action, as required under EU law, said the Commission's notice published in the latest edition of the Official Journal.

There also had to be a problem specific to the member state making the request, it said.

"The Polish notification does not provide any new scientific evidence relating to the protection of the environment or the working environment," the Journal said.

"The Commission therefore considers that the national provisions notified cannot be approved," it added.

Earlier this month, France said it would activate a provision in European law to suspend the commercial use of MON 810, an insect-resistant maize developed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto. The Commission has yet to react formally.


Beet growers bet on Roundup

- Dave Wilkins, Capital Press, Jan. 18, 2008


TWIN FALLS, Idaho - If Roundup were a poker game, Idaho sugar beet growers would be going all in.

Roundup Ready sugar beet seed will be commercially available this year for the first time, and it's expected to account for at least 95 percent of Idaho's sugar beet acreage, according to the Amalgamated Sugar Co.

"I don't think it will be any less than that," John Schorr, agriculture manager for the Boise-based company, said in an interview this week.

Based on last year's crop of 167,000 acres, Idaho beet growers could be expected to plant about 150,000 acres of Roundup Ready beets this year.

The genetically engineered beets are designed to withstand Monsanto's glyphosate herbicide, more commonly known as Roundup.

Roundup Ready beets are impervious to the popular broad-based herbicide, while pigweed, kochia, foxtail, common lambsquarters and other weeds get hammered.

The genetically engineered seed costs a little more than conventional seed because of an additional technology fee, but most growers seem to think it's worth it.

"Most growers want to have this," Schorr said. "This is what they've been looking for."

Roundup Ready beets mean less herbicides are applied and fewer trips are made through the field.

"This is something that helps growers and helps the environment," Schorr said.

Two years ago, a few Idaho farmers gave Roundup Ready sugar beets a try by planting a total of 300 acres in a demonstration project.

They liked the results, and so did many other growers.

With Roundup Ready beets, growers will have no reason to hire workers to hoe their fields or even to cultivate if they don't want to.

And consumers don't have anything to fear from eating sugar from Roundup Ready sugar beets, Schorr said.

The sugar from Roundup Ready sugar beets is the same as sugar from conventional beets, he said.

"Consumers are getting the same quality sugar they have gotten all along," Schorr said. "Sugar is sugar."

Some weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate, most notably in the Midwest where Roundup Ready soybeans and corn have been grown for some time.

The sugar beet industry is doing everything it can to prevent similar problems from occurring in Idaho, Schorr said.

Growers will be required to take a certification class and they'll be expected to work closely with company field representatives, he said.

Don Morishita, a University of Idaho weed scientist, cautioned growers attending last week's Snake River Sugarbeet Conference to use Roundup Ready technology judiciously and wisely.

"It's really important to use resistance management now to avoid having to battle glyphosate-resistant weeds later on," Morishita said.

If growers exercise sound judgment in their use of Roundup Ready varieties and the herbicide itself, it should prove to be a valuable tool, Morishita said.

"I'm really excited about this," he said. "It's a wonderful technology. I can't think of a better crop to use this technology on."


Biotech critics challenging Monsanto GMO sugar beet

- Carey Gillam, Reuters, Jan. 23, 2008


KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Opponents of biotech crops said on Wednesday they were filing a lawsuit to challenge the USDA's deregulation of Monsanto Co's genetically engineered sugar beet because of fears of "biological contamination" and other harm to the environment.

The Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and two organic seed groups said the lawsuit involved the United States Department of Agriculture's approval of Monsanto's glyphosate-resistant sugar beet, which is engineered to withstand treatment of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

The "Roundup Ready" sugar beets are slated to be grown on a commercial scale for the first time in the United States this year, the groups said.

Neither Monsanto nor USDA officials could be reached immediately for comment.

The groups said the wind-pollinated biotech sugar beets will cross-pollinate and contaminate conventional sugar beets, organic chard and table beet crops.

As well, the groups said the biotech sugar beets will increase the recent rise of weeds resistant to herbicide, which have been reported on 2.4 million acres of U.S. cropland, the groups said.

"The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment," said Greg Loarie, an attorney at the Earthjustice law firm, which is helping represent the plaintiffs. "The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds."

The lawsuit is similar to one biotech crop opponents filed over the USDA's deregulation of Monsanto's genetically altered alfalfa, which led a federal judge last year to issue a nationwide ban against the planting of the Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The judge found that U.S. regulators improperly allowed the commercialization of the biotech alfalfa without a thorough examination of its effects.


Biotech companies desert international agriculture project

- JunkScience.com Blog, Jan. 23, 2008


The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development aims to focus attention on the problem of how to feed the world's growing population, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done for the challenge of global warming. Monsanto, Syngenta and BASF resigned after a draft report from the project highlighted the risks of GM crops and said they could pose problems for the developing world.

The companies argue the report should say their GM technology could secure future food supplies because it can boost yields and make plants more resistant to droughts and higher temperatures.

Bob Watson, director of the project, which is based on the work of 4,000 scientists and experts from around the world, said he was "very disappointed" by the companies' move.

He said: "It's very unfortunate that they have walked out even before we agreed the final version. If they can bring evidence forward that we have not been objective, or that the language is biased, then we could discuss that."

He also said the resignations would weaken the final report. "Our goal was to have them included. We wanted a multi stake holder group that included everyone, that was absolutely essential." (The Guardian)

And what did everyone expect with former IPCC chair Bob Watson directing the project and Greenpeace[!] having representatives on the assessment panel?

A Maurice Strong acolyte (remember Strong: head of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and Executive Officer for Reform in the Office of the Secretary General of the United Nations who said "Isn't the only hope for the planet that the industrialised civilizations collapse? Isn't it our responsibility to bring that about?"), Watson is a misanthropic twit who will say and do anything to inhibit development and human prosperity. Watson made a career of trying to prevent or at least delay developing world access to energy or development of any kind.

Watson is also part of the reason the IPCC is stacked with Gaia-nuts like Michael Oppenheimer: "We can't let other countries have the same number of cars, the same industrialization, we have in the U.S. We have to stop these Third World countries right where they are." (He joined the Princeton faculty after more than two decades with Environmental Defense, is a long-time participant in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), serving most recently as a lead author of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report.)

In fact the IPCC seems infested with those raised on Ehrlichian dogma: "A massive campaign must be launched to de-develop the United States. De-development means bringing our economic system (especially patterns of consumption) into line with the realities of ecology and the world resource situation."

What dill imagined Watson and the Gaia-gang would have anything to do with technologies which will help support people? Do they not recall the fear campaign presided over by the former IPCC chair? Have they not noticed the massive misinformation and fear campaigns run by Greenpeace on everything from nuclear energy to biotech? How naïve can they be?

The bottom line for the Gaia-gang is "doesn't matter what it is - if it's good for people they're agin it".


Guest ed. note: See also, "Biotech companies desert international agriculture project," David Adam, Guardian Unlimited, Jan. 22, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jan/22/gmcrops.climatechange?gusrc=rss&feed=science


GMO Cotton Trials Approved

- Ronald Kalyango, New Vision (Kampala) via AllAfrica.com, Jan. 22, 2008


CONFINED field trials of genetically modified (GM) cotton has been approved in Uganda. Cotton becomes the second GM crop, after bananas to be approved by the the National Biosafety Committee (NBC). Confined field trials are studies that are made by scientists to collect information on any new varieties developed at research stations within the country or outside.

Early last year, scientists at the National Agricultural Biotechnology Centre (NABC) in Kawanda, Wakiso district successfully planted GM bananas believed to be resistant to Black Sigatoka disease.

Black Sigatoka is a disease that causes premature drying and death of banana leaves, leading to significant reduction in yields.

The GM cotton to be planted is believed to be resistant to the cotton bollworm and tolerant to herbicides. The trials shall be carried out by scientists at the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Soroti and Mobuku in Kasese districts.

"The GM banana trial is of great significant because it is the first testing of GM plants in Uganda," explained Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, a research scientist at NABC. When the trials are successful, it would become easy for the GM's introduction and commercialisation use on variety, patent and ownership rights between the Government and technology providers.

However, stakeholders warn that there is need to hasten gazetting of the Biotechnology and Biosafety policy for deriving the required Bill and Act. The policy, drafted in 2003, is yet to be tabled in Cabinet and Parliament.

"We had moved fast, but the death of Omwony Ojwok, the state minister of economic planning has stalled the process," noted Arthur Makara, an official at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST). He added that they had had a meeting with Fred Omach, the state minister for finance and were optimistic that the policy will be discussed by Cabinet as soon as possible.

By October last year, Kenya was already discussing possible ways of passing the Biosafety Bill into a Law.

"The fact that the Kenyan parliament started the discussions late last year, is a sign that when the GMOs are approved in Kenya, there is no way they will fail to find their way into the Ugandan markets," said Prof Adipala Ekwamu, the coordinator of Regional University Forum for Capacity Development in Agriculture. It also means that local farmers could soon start growing the high yielding and fast- maturing GMOs.

Biotechnology provides new and promising opportunities for achieving greater food security, reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for marginalised people in developing countries.

However, concerns about the environmental and food safety of GMOs and biotechnology-derived products have generated extensive international debate regarding the desirability of GMOs, and lack of enough information regarding the actual impact of GMOs on the environment and human health.

Jolly Sabune, the managing director of the Cotton Development Organisation, said when the Bt Cotton gene is imported, the productivity of the local varieties would be increased. After about three years of trials, farmers will be technically guided on adoption of seeds for planting.

On patent rights, she said UNCST and the technology providers would agree for the rights to be shared. "We are insisting that since the technology providers give Uganda the ownership of the local varieties," Sabune said.

Makara said the approval by NBC implies that before the research permit is issued by UNCST to scientists to carry out research, a number of issues have to be met. "Some of the conditions were to take the NBC members to Soroti and Mobuku where the confined field trials are going to be conducted. This has been done and we are waiting for a few technical issues to be addressed before importation of the genes begins."

Dr. Emeetai Areke, the director of NaSSARI, also the principal investigator of the research, said the scientists would gather data from the trials that will be used in the development of GM cotton suited for Ugandan conditions. He anticipates that the trials in Soroti will begin during the May-June planting season and in Mobuku, Kasese district by July.


Plant based biopharmaceutical for Gaucher's disease

- Tanuja Rohatgi, Checkbiotech, Jan. 21, 2008


Treatment for rare genetic disorders still presents a challenge to society. What makes finding a cure for such disorders difficult is the lack of available information. However, there are a few exceptions, Gaucher's disease being one of them.

Gaucher's disease is one of the most common lysosomal storage disorder, which occurs as a result of mutations in the gene coding for an enzyme responsible for fat metabolism in lysosomes called glucocerebrosidase (GCD).

Cerezyme, a recombinant GCD produced in mammalian cells is used to treat Gaucher's disease. However, production of Cerezyme in mammalian cells is difficult and thus expensive. The recombinant enzyme produced by mammalian cells is normally inactive and it requires an additional processing step to make the recombinant enzyme effective and functional.

To circumvent these problems, Protalix Biotherapeutics in Carmiel, Israel was successful in establishing a novel plant-based method for the large-scale production of recombinant GCD. The recombinant GCD expressed by the transgenic carrot cell suspension culture is active and functional and does not require the additional processing step that mammalian cells production requires.

Recombinant GCD from transgenic carrot cells

Protalix made several modifications to the human GCD gene sequence in order to express an active and functional recombinant enzyme in carrot cell culture. Transgenic carrot cells were checked for the expression of the recombinant enzyme (prGCD) by various biochemical methods. Structural and enzymatic analysis of prGCD revealed the presence of an active enzyme, thereby bypassing the additional processing step necessary in the case of Cerezyme.

When Checkbiotech asked Dr. Aviezer, why a carrot cell system was chosen he replied, "Our initial aim was to use a cell culture system which is as safe as possible. Furthermore, a possible future plan is to develop an oral administration route by producing the recombinant protein within the carrot and to administer the drug orally, since carrots do not produce any toxins during their life cycle."

Dr. Aviezer told Checkbiotech, " Our laboratory and preclinical data in rodents and primate generated extensive toxicological and safety data that demonstrated no adverse effects, even with very high doses of prGCD being administered via intravenous infusions."

"The data demonstrate that prGCD has the potential to be an efficacious enzyme replacement therapy for the treatment of Gaucher disease, explained Dr. Aviezer. "Data produced from the preliminary development studies show that, relative to Cerezyme, prGCD has an equivalent, to superior level of enzymatic activity, enhanced uptake based on observed GlcCer substrate degradation and a prolonged half-life."

The next stage

Protalix has already completed phase I clinical trial of prGCD performed under an FDA Investigational New Drug (IND) approval.

" All doses administered to subjects in the phase I clinical trial, including the highest dose, which was the same dosage currently suggested with respect to the treatment by Cerezyme, demonstrated a strong safety profile," explained Dr. Aviezer. "In addition, the half-life of prGCD was found to be s ignificantly longer than that of Cerezyme as disclosed publicly by Genzyme , which was consistent with our preclinical data. No neutralizing antibodies or adverse immunological responses were detected in any of the subjects treated in the phase I clinical trial. The data from our phase I clinical trial showed that prGCD was safe and well tolerated at all doses."

Dr. Aviezer commented, "We believe the results of our biochemical, biological and preclinical studies and pharmacokinetic data from our phase I clinical trial may support claims for less frequent treatment and lower dosages of prGCD for Gaucher's disease patients, as compared to the current standard of care. This would represent a substantial improvement over currently marketed enzyme replacement therapies. However, further clinical evaluation will still be required to support these claims. We will explore the potential for lower dosages in our phase III clinical trial."

In April 2007, Protalix received approval from the FDA to commence a phase III clinical trial of prGCD. Dr. Aviezer said, " We submitted to the FDA a request for a special protocol assessment (SPA) of the final design of our pivotal phase III clinical trial for prGCD. In July 2007, we reached an agreement with the FDA on the design that we submitted in the SPA request and in the third quarter of 2007 we initiated enrollment and treatment of patients in the phase III clinical trial."

Some facts about Gaucher's disease

Gaucher's disease occur approximately in 1 in 50,000 live births and the Ashkenazi Jews are most prone to carry the mutation. It can occur with equal frequency in both males and females and both parents should bear the mutation in order to pass it onto their offspring. Since Gaucher's disease results due to mutation in a single gene, it is possible to treat the disease by enzyme replacement therapy (ERT), where the deficient enzyme is given by intravenous perfusion to the patient.

Deficiency of GCD leads to accumulation of fatty substances in specialized storage cells of lysosomes called, Gaucher's cells. The main organs affected are the spleen, liver, bone marrow, kidney, lungs and brain. Most common symptoms include liver and spleen enlargement, malfunctioning of liver, skeletal deformation, skin and blood-related problems and severe neurological complications.

Economics of plant-based biopharmaceuticals

Dr. Aviezer is quite confident about the economic benefits of his system, "Our ProCellEx protein expression system requires significantly less upfront capital expenditures as it does not use highly complex, expensive, stainless steel bioreactors typically used in mammalian cell-based production systems to maintain very specific temperature, pH and oxygen levels."

Instead, Protalix's system uses simple polyethylene bioreactors that are able to be maintained at the room temperature of the clean-room in which they are placed. This system also reduces ongoing production and monitoring costs typically incurred by companies using mammalian cell-based expression technologies.

"We believe that these factors will potentially result in lower capital and production costs for the commercial scale production of proteins by our ProCellEx system thereby providing us with a competitive advantage over competing protein expression technologies."


Building disease-beating wheat

- CSIRO (press release), Dec. 12, 2007


Disease resistance genes from three different grass species have been combined in the world's first 'trigenomic' chromosome, which can now be used to breed disease resistant wheat varieties.

Pioneered by CSIRO researchers, in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Sydney University, the research illustrates the major genetic improvements possible without genetic modification (GM) technology.

"Wheat breeders often use wild relatives of wheat as sources of novel genes in breeding new disease-resistant wheats," research team leader Dr Phil Larkin says. "The exciting part of the new research is that we have been able to retain the useful genes but leave behind the associated undesirable genes - most notably in this case those for yellow flour colour, an important quality characteristic in wheat," Dr Larkin says.

"Unfortunately genes from wild relatives usually come in large blocks of hundreds of genes, and often include undesirable genes. Furthermore, these blocks of genes tend to stay together, even after many generations of breeding.

"The problem can be so difficult to overcome that plant breeders sometimes give up on very valuable genes because they cannot separate them from the problematic genes."

A paper published this month in the respected international journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics details how the team 'recombined' two wild blocks of genes from two different Thinopyrum grass species - a wild relative of wheat - bringing together resistance genes for leaf rust and Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV), two of the world's most damaging wheat diseases. The recombined gene 'package' may also carry a resistance gene against a new stem rust strain which is causing concern worldwide.

"The exciting part of the new research is that we have been able to retain the useful genes but leave behind the associated undesirable genes - most notably in this case those for yellow flour colour, an important quality characteristic in wheat," Dr Larkin says.

By developing new 'DNA markers' and by careful testing the team has produced a number of the disease resistance 'packages' for wheat breeders, making it faster and easier to include these important disease resistance traits in future wheat varieties.

It is hoped other examples will follow and the genetic diversity available in wild species can be recruited more extensively for wheat improvement.


DNA 'fabricator' constructs walking DNA

- Robert Adler, New Scientist, Jan. 16, 2008


The goal of being able to program biochemical reactions as precisely and easily as computers crunch numbers and process words has moved a giant step closer.

A group at the California Institute of Technology, led by biomolecular engineer Niles Pierce, has created a DNA-based fabricator.

This is a system that allows the team to specify a piece of DNA with a desired shape and function, and then execute a molecular program to assemble it in a test tube. As an example, they used their system to construct a piece of DNA that walks along another strip of DNA.

Just as computer languages let programmers create any number of applications, the researchers behind the approach predict that biochemical programming "languages" inspired by their work could let bioengineers create any number of desired molecular products and processes.

Other researchers have created a variety of DNA-based objects, including self-replicating nanostructures, movable arms, tweezers, nanoscale faces, maps and other structures, and even game-playing computers.

But Pierce and his group have gone even further with their biochemical programming. Bespoke reactions

"We have shown that you can actually program the interactions between these molecules to implement different dynamic functions using the same components," says Pierce.

At the heart of the group's system are hairpin-shaped strands of DNA each about 10 nanometers long with three specific binding sites called "toeholds".

These hairpins can snap together in specific ways. When a hairpin is closed, for example, two out of its three binding sites are unavailable. But, if a suitable strand of DNA docks with it, the hairpin springs open.

A reaction between two DNA strands can also free up the exposed site on an attached hairpin, causing it to close once more.

In computer terms, the hairpins act as interconnected logic gates. "This elementary unit has one input port and two output ports," says Pierce. "And they can interact - the input port of one can receive an input from the output port of another." Practical tasks

The group has also developed a graphical way to represent the state of these molecular building blocks and the step-by-step interactions between them. These "reaction graphs" allow them to map out the assembly and disassembly steps needed to produce a desired sequence of reactions.

The necessary reactions are then translated into specific sequences of complementary DNA base pairs with the requisite binding characteristics. Finally, the program runs in a test tube that contains the specified mix of molecules.

To demonstrate the power and flexibility of their programming approach, the group used it to produce several different reactions including, most dramatically, two-legged DNA molecules that walk along a ladder-like track.

Pierce's group also demonstrated other reactions that could be useful for practical tasks, such as biosensing. Engineering challenge

The two-legged walker, says Pierce, was inspired by the vital intracellular transport protein, kinesin, which walks along microtubules at about 100 steps per second.

"It remains a phenomenal engineering challenge to attempt to encode that functionality from scratch," he says.

Pierce admits, however, that the group has taken just the first few steps towards programming biological structures and functions at will.

Still, he says, a few years ago audience members laughed when he said he wanted to create a compiler to automate the process of encoding desired functions into DNA sequences. "Our field has now progressed to the point where the real question is not whether it can be done, but how far it can be pushed."

Some of Pierce's peers believe this kind of systematic biomolecular programming can be pushed very far indeed.

"It's great work," says computer scientist Erik Winfree, who is also at based Caltech, but was not involved with the work. "What's remarkable is that it develops a general way of creating a very diverse set of chemical reaction pathways. It opens a lot of doors."

Journal Reference: Nature (vol 451, p 320)


In diatom, scientists find genes that may level engineering hurdle

- University of Wisconsin-Madison (press release) via EurekAlert, Jan. 21, 2008


MADISON - Denizens of oceans, lakes and even wet soil, diatoms are unicellular algae that encase themselves in intricately patterned, glass-like shells. Curiously, these tiny phytoplankton could be harboring the next big breakthrough in computer chips.

Diatoms build their hard cell walls by laying down submicron-sized lines of silica, a compound related to the key material of the semiconductor industry - silicon. "If we can genetically control that process, we would have a whole new way of performing the nanofabrication used to make computer chips," says Michael Sussman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry professor and director of the UW-Madison's Biotechnology Center.

To that end, a team led by Sussman and diatom expert Virginia Armbrust of the University of Washington has reported finding a set of 75 genes specifically involved in silica bioprocessing in the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana, as published today in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Armbrust, an oceanography professor who studies the ecological role of diatoms, headed up the effort to sequence the genome of T. pseudonana, which was completed in 2004.

The new data will enable Sussman to start manipulating the genes responsible for silica production and potentially harness them to produce lines on computer chips. This could vastly increase chip speed, Sussman says, because diatoms are capable of producing lines much smaller than current technology allows.

"The semiconductor industry has been able to double the density of transistors on computer chips every few years. They've been doing that using photolithographic techniques for the past 30 years," explains Sussman. "But they are actually hitting a wall now because they're getting down to the resolution of visible light."

Before diatoms were appreciated for their engineering prowess, they interested ecologists for their role in the planet's carbon cycle. These photosynthetic cells soak up carbon dioxide and then fall to the ocean floor. They account for upwards of 20 percent of the carbon dioxide that is removed from the atmosphere each year, an amount comparable to that removed by all of the planet's rainforests combined.

"We want to see which genes express under different environmental conditions because these organisms are so important in global carbon cycling," explains Thomas Mock, a postdoctoral researcher in Armbrust's lab and the paper's first author.

But research on these algae has uncovered other enticing possibilities. As he learned about diatoms, Sussman became intrigued by the fact that each species of diatom - there may be around 100,000 of them - is believed to sport a uniquely designed cell wall.

To determine which genes are involved in creating those distinctive patterns, the research team used a DNA chip developed by Sussman, UW-Madison electrical engineer Franco Cerrina and UW-Madison geneticist Fred Blattner, the three founders of the biotechnology company NimbleGen. Put simply, the chip allows scientists to see which genes are involved in a given cellular process. In this case, the chip identified genes that responded when diatoms were grown in low levels of silicic acid, the raw material they use to make silica.

Of the 30 genes that increased their expression the most during silicic acid starvation, 25 are completely new, displaying no similarities to known genes.

"Now we know which of the organism's 13,000 genes are most likely to be involved in silica bioprocessing. Now we can zero in on those top 30 genes and start genetically manipulating them and see what happens," says Sussman.

For his part, Sussman is optimistic that in the long run these findings will help him improve the DNA chip he helped develop - the very one used to gather data for this research project. "It's like the Lion King song," he says. "You know, 'the circle of life.'"


'GM food is as scientifically safe as non-GM food'

- Prof Anthony Trewavas, Institute of Molecular Plant Science, Edinburgh, Scotland (letter), Irish Medical News, web accessed Jan.18, 2008


Just as it is wrong to be indifferent to food safety so it is equally wrong to exaggerate food safety fears.

If Dr Elizabeth Cullen (IMN, 15/10/07) feels she has new information on GM food safety then she should submit it to the requisite food safety authorities; for example the European Food Standards Agency, the equivalent in the UK, or the FDA in the US and many other specialist government committees.

These agencies and committees are composed of epidemiologists and toxicologists with many decades of experience and qualifications that neither Dr Cullen or indeed myself possess. However, I think she will find that the information that claims problems with GM food has already been rejected by these expert assessors with very good reason.

In a complex world I am content to leave that judgement in the hands of those whose experience qualifies them to make the decisions based on the best available knowledge and I suggest that Dr Cullen with due humility should do the same. About five years ago I deposited a list of about 150 papers that dealt with feeding experiments and chemical analysis of GM foods with the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The list is now very much longer but unfortunately I find that those who object to the valuable use of GM technology in agriculture have little interest in reading any of them.

The detailed chemistry of food is well understood as is the function of most constituents. It is not sufficient to make blanket claims that a food might be unsafe without specifying in which constituents it is altered that would provide for problems.

Some people object to GM food either because they don't trust large seed companies or because they think scientists shouldn't fiddle with the supposed genetical fundamentals of life. But human interference in the genetic structure of crops started over 10,000 years ago when natural mutations (natural genetic engineering) of wheat were selected to provide for better food supplies; without that interference the present world population could not be sustained

Dr Cullen should appreciate that the scientific consensus of expert agencies is that GM food is as safe as its non-GM counterpart. Regulation does not equate to danger.


The Future of Agricultural Biotechnology: Creative Destruction, Adoption, or Irrelevance?

- 12th ICABR Conference at Ravello (Italy) from June 12 to June 14, 2008 in Honor of Vittorio Santaniello.


Organized by the: International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR); email: anna.santaniello@tiscali.it

---- With nearly twelve years since the first genetically modified crop was commercially grown, agricultural biotechnology remains contentious and as a result, limited in its scope and scale. This begs the question, what does the future hold for agricultural biotechnology? Will agricultural biotechnology finally deliver on its promise of a gene revolution in agriculture, that as the supporters of the technology have consistently argued, will dramatically increase yields of crops, replace or reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, produce new vaccines and, lead to superior livestock? Will it be able to face the challenge of climate change and the search of technological sustainability through crops that are more drought resistant, resilient and versatile and better able to adapt to local conditions? If it can, biotechnology will have an impact that corresponds to Joseph Schumpeter's ideas about the transformative role of new, more productive technologies which fosters rapid economic growth by replacing the old technologies and the industries that produce them--a process he referred to as "creative destruction."

If not creative destruction, will the future be one where technological breakthroughs are more incremental, suggesting a gradual adoption of the new techniques of biotechnology that are part of the standard toolkit of agricultural scientists? This is what seems to have happened to biotechnology in medical research where it has become a standard part of the medical research tool kit and generates relatively little controversy.

A third possibility is that some biotechnology such as genetic engineering of crops is abandoned or relegated to special cases because they are too controversial with consumers. This would be similar to the case of food irradiation which was proven to be effective in controlling food pathogens but has never been accepted by the public.

The ultimate path or paths that biotechnology takes in the future will be influenced by four major factors: (i) growing demand for grains, biofuels and for safe and environmentally friendly food; (ii) growth of knowledge and technology related to plant and animal biology which is driven in part by medical research; (iii) needs of farmers and communities in a changing environment, threatened by global warming and by increasing costs of fuel and modern agricultural inputs; (iv) governments' responses to the first three factors in terms of their investments in research and diffusion, biosafety regulations and incentives for private sector innovations.


Second Edition of the UNIVPM UNIDO EBiosafety Master

First week on campus - Ancona, January 28 to February 02, 2008


Thursday 31, January 2008
Seminars on Biotechnology and Biosafety

Transgenics are imperative for biofuel crops
J. Gressel Weizmanm Institute, Israel

Plant for vaccine production
F. Sala, Milan University

Biofortified food
Nancy Terryn, University of Ghent (BE)

Biotechnology for horticultural crops
B. Mezzetti, SAPROV Univpm - Ancona, Italy

Biosafety: from Asilomar to today
G. Tzotzos, UNIDO, Vienna, AU

The CBD and the Italian GMO competent authority
S. Gomes, Minister of Environment

Concepts for the post market environmental monitoring of genetically modified crops
V. Giovannelli, Agency for Environmental Protection and Technical Services Department
Nature Protection - GMOs Unit, Rome, Italy

See link above for more information

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