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February 6, 2008


What happens when you challenge an NGO?; Biotech Yield Endorsement; 'Tearless onion' breakthrough


* What happens when you challenge an NGO?
* Fickle European GM policies stifle competition
* Pig market crisis blamed on GM opponents
* Bill Gates Aims to Save Africa
* Biotech Yield Endorsement Reviewed
* ASA Welcomes Regulatory Approvals
* Bt cotton acreage touches 66%
* GM bananas in field trials
* 'Tearless onion' breakthrough
* Blue roses to go on sale
* Enhanced expression ZmPLC1 for drought tolerance
* Bacterium sequenced makes rare form of chlorophyll
* 'GM food is a big opportunity'
* Organic Original
* Video: Doug Powell talks about sweet corn


What happens when you challenge an NGO about their transparency in handling donations and their compliance with taxation law?


Irish scientist and blogger Shane Morris attracts a lot of energy from GM-free Ireland. Why?

- GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe, Feb. 5, 2008


Guest ed. note: The text of the two blog entries referenced above is too extensive to reproduce here, so I will simply make my remarks and trust readers to follow up.

My tenure as a journalist specializing in agricultural biotechnology spans more than a decade, and never once have I seen such a prolonged, pitched battle as you will find described in those blog entries. I have seen scientists working in the field of ag biotech, their laboratories, and their employers, subjected to threats and hostilities of every possible description, by every means imaginable. In spite of what the credulous mass media would have us believe, scientists, and multinational corporations alike, have persistently cowered before the onslaught of a well-funded horde of antagonists. These antagonists are funded by the European Union, member governments of the European Union, foundations established in the EU and the US, and the organic farming industry. Their antipathy is so extreme that they are not embarrassed to be complicit in the deaths of millions in developing nations in the name of "the environment."

Against this backdrop of malice and money-laundering, an Irish research scientist at University College Cork, currently working for Agri-Food and Agriculture Canada, is under attack. Shane Morris has become a target for character assassination and unemployment, simply beause he exposed a tiny fraction of the sordid financing which underwrites the $multi-billion global protest industry.

A campaign against Shane ensued. His integrity was defamed, and the claims were retracted as libel. Later, false claims were put in the mouths of others, and further retractions ensued. Former UK environment minister Michael Meacher has gone so far as to formally place a motion before the British Parliament condemning Shane.

Shane has drawn the hatred of those who call themselves 'environmentalists' for only one reason. He refused to cower behind the barricades, where vandalism, firebombings, shabby journalism and threats of violence have thrust all too many of his colleagues. Instead, he laid accusations where they belong, and showed them to be true. The global protest industry, literally, cannot afford scientists who are willing to speak out against it.

To date, Shane Morris has prevailed, defending himself with his own resources and his own lawyers. Arrayed against him are lawyers engaged by the Friends of the Earth, a group which our readers know to be funded in substantial part by the European Union.

Perhaps the best anyone can do for Shane is to read the blog entries at the link above, and to acknowledge: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."


Fickle European GM policies stifle competition, say experts

- Laura Crowley, FoodNavigator, Feb. 4, 2008


The unstable political situation surrounding the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops is restricting university research and pushing small companies out of the arena, thereby restricting competition, said a GM expert.

Natalie Moll, a director at Europabio, the European Association for Bioindustries, told FoodNavigator.com: "The agricultural industry is lacking courageous people who are willing to take the chances in an area where the market is uncertain. Only big companies can survive."

As European member states struggle to agree on a biotech policy, with different countries applying their own bans and restrictions on GM research and cultivation, research and development is being sacrificed.

At the moment, the only type of GM crop grown in the EU is maize, which was approved in 1998. It is not cultivated for human consumption, but for animal feed only.

GM crop cultivation is expanding in Europe, with over 110,000 hectares of biotech crops harvested in seven EU member states last year, representing a 77 per cent increase.

Still, consumers and environment organisations maintain caution over GM products, fearing their possible long term health risks and effects on the environment. One of the main concerns is regarding cross-contamination with conventional crops.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "Consumers in Europe have rejected GM foods, and labelling rules allow us to avoid foods with GM ingredients."

Assessing GM

According to Moll, there is a backlog of 30 or 40 products waiting for approval in Europe. Last year, there were only four approvals out of 45. Many smaller companies just cannot afford to wait the customary 10 years for the process to be completed.

This means only leading companies in the industry are able to commit their time and money to biotech research.

"There is disappointment for the SME area," said Moll. "There should be competition in the market, but this is not really possible."

Seeking competition elsewhere

Moll's comments came after biotech company BASF Plant Science sought to intensify its activities in Asia Pacific with an agreement with China's National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS).

"Asia is emerging as a key player in plant biotechnology both in research and cultivation and we are striving to intensify partnerships in this dynamic region. Europe, on the contrary, is losing its competitiveness due to slow and contradictory political decisions," said Hans Kast, President and CEO of BASF Plant Science.

While Asia Pacific is getting more competitive, offering a more interesting challenge for biotech research, Europe's market is facing the challenge.

Mette Johansson, BASF manager of communications said: "Politicians are making is more and more difficult for farmers to grow these products. Furthermore, Europe has a very high quality of researchers and we are concerned about how these political decisions will affect this standard, as research will only continue if the new products will be used.

Commenting on this business move, Moll said she thought it likely other companies would pursue business activities elsewhere, but this would not represent a refocus out of Europe.

"There has always been a large international business for European biotech companies," said Moll. "Our farmers are still showing they are interested in applying biotech, so as long as there is still a need, research will continue in Europe."

University research

Other victims of the tough political situation placing challenges on the biotech industry are universities.

Moll said the number of biotech university courses in Europe has dramatically decreased as students do not want to enter an industry where the future is uncertain.

She said: "There is a severe lack of European innovative power. When is Europe going to take farmers needs more seriously and develop a biotech policy that supports them?"

Ricardo Gent, managing director of the German Association of Biotechnology Industries, told FoodNavigator.com that universities are afraid to enter into GM field trials in Germany, because liability regulations mean they would have to foot a large bill should neighbouring fields become contaminated.

Again, this means large companies are the only ones able to carry out extensive biotech research, draining the industry of competition.

European GM situation

Austria enforced a ban on the import and processing of Monsanto's MON810 and Bayer's T25 maize in June 1999.

The Commission has been debating whether to force the country to lift its restrictions since 2005, as Austria has never produced the necessary scientific evidence to contest the positive assessment of the products by Europe's food safety authorities.

France has complicated the matter when it chose to extend its temporary ban on the cultivation of MON810, applying the same EU measure by arguing the costs to health posed by GM crops.

Last month, the European Commission was given yet more time to bring member states in compliance with trade obligations on GM crops after failing to meet its original deadline.


Germany: Pig market crisis blamed on GM opponents.

- Pig Progress.net, Feb. 5, 2008


The current difficulties in the German pig sector are attributed to government opposition to genetically modified (GM) feedstuffs, according to a representative of German opposition party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Hans-Michael Goldmann, agriculture spokesman for the FDP, commented in a press statement that the problems on the German pig market are partly "home-made" as the government's "anti-innovation policy" is blocking biotechnology in Germany and Europe with inevitable consequences for feed prices.

He stated further that for Germany's main EU competitors, feed costs are lower due to the use of new GM varieties. In addition, he believes that German pig production laws are a hindrance and pig farmers should be allowed to feed their animals with animal fats and feeds made from animal protein.

On January 25, the Bundestag (German parliament) approved a draft Biotechnology Law stating the criteria for labelling products as GM-free and the conditions for growing GM crops. The German Farmers' Union (DBV) is advising its members to refrain from growing GM crops as yet because of uncertainties until the legislation has come into force.


Bill Gates Aims to Save Africa

Forget Bono. The world's richest man gives away hundreds of millions to foster a new Green Revolution.

- Ronald Bailey, Reason, Jan. 29, 2008


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is following in the footsteps of the Rockefeller Foundation by fomenting a Green Revolution for the 21st century. The first Green Revolution blossomed from Rockefeller Foundation funding for plant breeding in Mexico in the 1940s. At that time, Mexico could not feed itself and was importing half of its wheat supplies. The Rockefeller Foundation hired young plant breeder Norman Borlaug to see what could be done to boost the productivity of poor Mexican farmers. Backed by $100,000 in annual funding from the foundation, Borlaug and his colleagues flourished. They created highly productive dwarf wheat varieties enabling Mexico to become self-sufficient in grains by 1956. By 1965, Mexican wheat yields rose 400 percent over their 1950 level.

In 1952, the Rockefeller Foundation began funding a similar effort to boost the productivity of poor Indian farmers. In the mid-1960s, India was importing grains to avert looming famines. The dwarf wheat varieties developed by Borlaug and his colleagues were again decisive in winning the battle against hunger on the subcontinent. Indian wheat production grew from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20 million tons in 1970 and the country was self-sufficient in grains by 1974. Green Revolution food production in Asia grew much faster than its population did, increasing calorie availability per person by nearly 30 percent and making wheat and rice cheaper. The Green Revolution prevented the deaths by starvation of perhaps a billion people. In terms of human well-being the Rockefeller Foundation's modest investment in agricultural research arguably paid the biggest dividend in history.

Unfortunately, the Green Revolution did not extend to the entire planet. Sub-Saharan Africa remained largely untouched. As a consequence, average per capita food production in Africa has declined by 12 percent since 1980.

Enter the Gates Foundation. In September 2006, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations announced a joint $150 million effort to create an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Last week, the Gates Foundation upped its ante on boosting production by another $306 million. About half of these new grants will fund efforts to improve seeds and soils in Africa. The Gates Foundation has clearly identified the right target. "For the poorest people, GDP [gross domestic product] growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes of extremely poor people than GDP growth originating outside the sector," according the World Bank's World Development Report 2008. But why did the Green Revolution not take off in Africa?

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has noted, "Poor infrastructure, high transport costs, limited investment in irrigation, and pricing and marketing policies that penalized farmers made the Green Revolution technologies too expensive or inappropriate for much of Africa." This list is basically an international bureaucracy's euphemism for saying that government corruption and mismanagement has kept African farmers poor. "Poor infrastructure" means that governments built no roads over which seeds, fertilizers and pesticides could be shipped cheaply to farmers. And conversely, without good roads, farmers can't get their crops to market.

For example, Uganda has just 58 miles of paved roads per million citizens, Mozambique just 87 miles . By contrast, the United States has 8,000. In addition, African governments have a history of imposing price controls on food crops ,which discourage farmers from growing more than they need for their families. Africa has not been alone in pursuing this destructive policy. In the 1960s, India paid its farmers 40 percent less than the world price for their grain. Green revolutionary Borlaug managed to persuade the Indian government to drop grain price controls. Restored market incentives persuaded Indian farmers to rapidly adopt new high yield crop varieties.

Interestingly, modern crop technologies fostered by the Gates Foundation might enable poor farmers to outflank, in part, these corrupt and stupid government policies. For example, seeds that contain traits like pest-resistance and drought-resistance could reduce farmers' dependence on government subsidized pesticides and irrigation systems. In fact, the Gates Foundation has provided nearly $40 million to researchers to develop drought resistant corn varieties for Africa. In addition, the foundation is funding low-cost drip irrigation systems designed by International Development Enterprises that can reduce the cost of irrigation from about $6,000 per acre to about $37.

About half of the $306 million in agricultural grants announced last week will go to the African Soil Health Program which aims to work with 4.1 million small-scale African farmers and regenerate 6.3 million hectares of farm land through better soil management practices. For the time being, AGRA supports only conventional crop breeding and does not fund the development of new varieties by means of genetic engineering. Rich countries have poured almost $600 billion in foreign aid into Africa over the past four decades. Result? Zero increase in per capita incomes. Is the Gates Foundation now pouring in good money after bad? Let's hope not.

The Gates Foundations' new Green Revolution has already provoked resistance from anti-globalization and anti-technology activists. For example, the California-based Food First/Institute for Food Development and Policy held a conference in Mali in November opposing the new Green Revolution. Food First peddled the now standard activist line that the first Green Revolution was a colossal mistake that primarily helped rich farmers become richer.

Like many such fables there is a grain of much exaggerated truth to the claim. Small farmers were slower to adopt Green Revolution techniques but most of them eventually did. Furthermore, higher farm incomes boosted demand for other goods and services, which in turn stimulated the rural nonfarm economy. Real per capita incomes doubled in Asia between 1970 and 1995. By doubling farm yields, tens of millions of acres of forests and wetlands were spared the plow and hundreds of millions of lives saved from starvation. The Green Revolution was not perfect, but critics ignore how bad poverty and hunger would have been without it.

In The Seattle Times, Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez denounced the Gates Foundation's efforts to foster an African Green Revolution. "It's a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa's food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted," he said. Considering that today some 200 million Africans subsist on the thin edge of starvation, Africa's food and agricultural systems should be so lucky as to be colonized by new Green Revolution agricultural research and technologies.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.


Biotech Yield Endorsement Reviewed

- College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), web posting, Feb. 5, 2008


URBANA - Farmers in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota will be able to receive discounts on crop insurance for non-irrigated corn grown for grain by using the Biotech Yield Endorsement (BYE), said a University of Illinois Extension farm financial management specialist.

"To be eligible for the discount, farmers must plant hybrids containing Monsanto-based technology with the following three traits: Roundup Ready ® Corn 2, YieldGard® Corn Borer, and YieldGard ® Rootworm," said Gary Schnitkey. "A list of the qualifying hybrids will be made available online (http://www.biotechyieldendorsement.com/).

Schnitkey has prepared a report on BYE (http://www.farmdoc.uiuc.edu/manage/newsletters/fefo08_03/fefo08_03.html), which is available on U of I Extension's farmdoc website.

He said the BYE discounts are offered because Monsanto provided three years' of comprehensive field-trial data to the USDA Risk Management Agency indicating that Monsanto-based triple-stacks hybrids have lower yield losses than conventional hybrids under drought and other stress conditions.

"Because yield losses are expected to be less, insurance payments are expected to be less," he said. "Lower expected payments then justify lower crop insurance premiums."

To be eligible to receive a BYE discount, a farmer must plant 75 percent of an insured unit of non-irrigated grain corn with hybrids containing Monsanto-based triple-stack traits. In addition, farmers using BYE must:

--sign a certification indicating that 75 percent of the insured unit is planted to eligible hybrids; --maintain invoices indicating that sufficient quantities of eligible hybrids have been purchased to plant required acres; and --be prepared for spot checks.

"During the growing season, spot checks of BYE-insured units will be made," Schnitkey said. "During a spot check, documentation listed above will be checked and seed dealers will be contacted to verify that the eligible hybrids have been purchased. Plant tissues will also be collected."


ASA Welcomes Regulatory Approvals for Next Generation Soybean Seed in Key Asian Countries

- American Soybean Association, press release, Feb. 5, 2008


Saint Louis, Missouri... The American Soybean Association (ASA) is pleased that final regulatory approvals have been received in Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan for Monsanto's, Roundup Ready 2 Yield(R) (MON 89788). U.S. soybean producers anticipate commercialization of this new product in 2009.

"These approvals represent significant progress toward commercialization of the technology," said ASA President John Hoffman, a soybean producer from Waterloo, Iowa. "It is my understanding that Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans will offer a 7 to 11 percent yield advantage over first-generation Roundup Ready beans, while providing the same tolerance to the Roundup herbicides we are now using to manage weeds. Higher soybean yields increase the ability of U.S. soybean growers to supply food, feed, and fuel markets domestically and around the globe."

Last July, Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans completed the regulatory process in both the United States and Canada. The product is currently under scientific review by the European Food Safety Authority, as well as regulatory authorities in China and other key export markets.

"More than 90 percent of the soybeans planted in the United States this year were biotech varieties," Hoffman said. "U.S. growers look forward to the next generation of biotech-enhanced soybean varieties now under development that will offer important benefits to consumers, growers, and the environment, ranging from healthy oil profiles to increased yields per unit of land to better weed control.

"Timely overseas regulatory approvals are critical because growers around the world have rapidly adopted new biotech-enhanced seed varieties as they became available," Hoffman said. "Livestock farmers and feed industries around the world depend on access to imported, protein-rich soybeans and soybean meal to nourish their animals and meet the food demands of consumers. U.S. soybean growers welcome these latest approvals in Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and we look forward to timely regulatory approvals in other important export markets well prior to planting in the spring of 2009."

Monsanto is planning a controlled commercial release of its Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean technology in 2009. A full-scale launch is expected in 2010.

Biotech-enhanced varieties of herbicide tolerant soybean seeds were first commercialized more than a decade ago. Herbicide tolerant seeds have become a standard in U.S. farmer management systems to control weeds that compete with crops for light, water, and nutrients. The technology provides farmers with an unprecedented weed management tool, which has led to increased conservation tillage practices that sequester carbon, reduce production costs, lower fuel consumption, reduce run-off, improve water quality, and save irreplaceable top soil.

ASA is the policy advocate and collective voice of its 22,000 producer-members on domestic and international issues of importance to all U.S. soybean farmers.


Bt cotton acreage touches 66% in current season

- The Financial Express (India), Feb. 5, 2008


Mumbai - Cultivation area of transgenic Bt cotton in the country has reached 63.3 lakh hectares or 66% of the total estimated cotton area of 95.3 lakh hectares during the current season 2007-08.

Maximum acreage of Bt cotton in the country is reported in the central zone at 43.8 lakh hectares, followed by the south zone with 10.8 lakh hectares and north zone with 8.7 lakh hectares, according to the latest issue of Cotton Statistic and News released by Cotton Association of India (CAI). The total coverage of Bt cotton comes to 72%, 68% and 69% of the total area in the central, south and north zones, respectively. Such extensive coverage by the high yieldingbollworm-resistant Bt cotton is helpful in boosting cotton production to an estimated all-time high cotton crop of 310 lakh bales.

The national average yield of cotton in the country is almost at the bottom level compared to most other leading producers in the world. The average yield is expected to be around 553 kg per hectares (as against world's average of 765 kg/hectare). This has helped the country in narrowing the gap between national and world average yields. While the gap between national and world averages has been as high as 338 kg/hectare in 2000-01, it is only 212 kg/hectare in 2007-08. The yields in some leading states seem to strengthen this expectation. The relevant yield figures to the major four states, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab are expected at 743, 691, 667 and 630 kg/hectare, respectively.


GM bananas in field trials

- ABC Rural (Australia), Feb 6, 2008


Australia's first genetically modified bananas could be growing in North Queensland by mid-year.

Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology will trial Cavendish bananas with extra genes that increase the levels of pro-vitamin A and iron in the fruit.

The technology will then be used to improve banana varieties in Uganda, where mineral and vitamin deficiencies are a big problem.

Professor James Dale says the field trials are a major step forward for the project.

"It will be the first field trial of genetically modified bananas in Australia and one of probably only three or four in the world", he says.

"It will be a very big step for us, fabulous to see the sort of genesis going from that first cell that we transformed back to a plant in the field, it's fairly exciting".


International magazine announces New Zealand "tearless onion" breakthrough

- NZ Crop & Food Research (press release), Feb. 1, 2008


International attention is focusing on "tearless onion" research being conducted by senior Crop & Food Research scientist Dr Colin Eady.

Dr Eady and his collaborators in Japan have been testing tearless onions in the laboratory and have presented their results so far to the 5th International Symposium on Edible Alliaceae, in The Netherlands.

Dr Eady describes "tearless" onions as being in the developmental stages but if the research progresses well, would like to see them become the household and industry norm within the next decade.

"We have been using a gene-silencing technology, called RNAi, developed by Dr Peter Waterhouse at CSIRO in Australia, that allows us to retarget the plant's own natural regulation system without expressing foreign proteins in the plant," Dr Eady says.

"Through RNAi, genes can be specifically shut down or turned off. By shutting down the lachrymatory factor synthase gene, we have stopped valuable sulphur compounds being converted to the tearing agent, and instead made them available for redirection into compounds, some of which are known for their flavour and health properties."

Dr Eady says the research team has been unable to induce tearing by crushing their model tearless onions.

"What we have now is a truly unique germplasm with a unique trait. We can home in and study what the consequences of this one effect are. We can detect differences in sulphur compounds known to be involved in flavour and health and actually measure them and assign to them a role."

International onion trade journal Onion World is featuring Dr Eady's work on the front cover of its final issue for 2007. The magazine quotes Dr Michael J. Havey, Professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin and USDA research geneticist, as well as world-renowned onion scientist, as predicting that tearless onions will become a mainstay in household kitchens around the world. He said Dr Eady's work was "clearly the No. 1 topic of discussion at the 5th International Symposium".

Dr Eady says although the "tearless onion" is an exciting project, he is most interested in sustainable and efficient production and will want to be sure that the onions he is working on are also capable of being grown in an efficient manner. "We have a burgeoning population to feed, and with climate change and other challenges, available resources are being reduced. The gene silencing system can also be used to combat virus diseases and biotechnology in general can help us produce more robust crops."

Dr Eady says in many countries onions already contribute a significant proportion of the daily fibre requirements of the populations. "They are such a versatile and nutritious vegetable, that if we can manage to get more people cooking and eating fresh onions, then that has got to be a positive outcome."


Blue roses to go on sale in Japan

- PhysOrg.com, Feb. 4, 2008


Think that red roses are predictable? In Japan, gift-givers soon will also have the option of blue roses. The Japanese company that created the world's first genetically modified blue roses said Monday it will start selling them next year.

Suntory Ltd., also a major whisky distiller, hopes to sell several hundred thousand blue roses a year, company spokesman Kazumasa Nishizaki said.

"As its price may be a bit high, we are targeting demand for luxurious cut flowers, such as for gifts," he said. The exact price and commercial name for the blue rose have not been decided.

The company is also growing the rose experimentally in Australia and the United States to get approval for sales, but no timing has been set for commercial launches in the two countries.

Suntory in 2004 unveiled the world's first genetically modified blue rose after 14 years of study which also involved Australian researchers.

It created the flowers by implanting the gene that leads to the synthesis of the blue pigment Delphinidin in pansies. The pigment does not exist naturally in roses.


Enhanced expression of phospholipase C 1 ( ZmPLC1 ) improves drought tolerance in transgenic maize

- Chun-Rong Wang, et. al., Planta, doi:10.1007/s00425-007-0686-9 Jan. 24, 2008


Abstract: Phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C (PI-PLC) plays an important role in a variety of physiological processes in plants, including drought tolerance. It has been reported that the ZmPLC1 gene cloned from maize (Zea mays L.) encoded a PI-PLC and up-regulated the expression in maize roots under dehydration conditions (Zhai SM, Sui ZH, Yang AF, Zhang JR in Biotechnol Lett 27:799-804, 2005). In this paper, transgenic maize expressing ZmPLC1 transgenes in sense or antisense orientation were generated by Agrobacterium-mediated transformation and confirmed by Southern blot analysis. High-level expression of the transgene was confirmed by real-time RT-PCR and PI-PLC activity assay. The tolerance to drought stress (DS) of the homogenous transgenic maize plants was investigated at two developmental stages. The results demonstrated that, under DS conditions, the sense transgenic plants had higher relative water content, better osmotic adjustment, increased photosynthesis rates, lower percentage of ion leakage and less lipid membrane peroxidation, higher grain yield than the WT; whereas those expressing the antisense transgene exhibited inferior characters compared with the WT. It was concluded that enhanced expression of sense ZmPLC1 improved the drought tolerance of maize.


Bacterium sequenced makes rare form of chlorophyll

Living on "the red edge"

- Washington University in St. Louis (press release) via EurekAlert, Feb. 4, 2008


Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Arizona State University have sequenced the genome of a rare bacterium that harvests light energy by making an even rarer form of chlorophyll, chlorophyll d. Chlorophyll d absorbs "red edge," near infrared, long wave length light, invisible to the naked eye.

In so doing, the cyanobacterium Acaryochloris marina, competes with virtually no other plant or bacterium in the world for sunlight. As a result, its genome is massive for a cyanobacterium, comprising 8.3 million base pairs, and sophisticated. The genome is among the very largest of 55 cyanobacterial strains in the world sequenced thus far, and it is the first chlorophyll d -containing organism to be sequenced .

Robert Blankenship. Ph.D., Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, and principal investigator of the project, said with every gene of Acaryochloris marina now sequenced and annotated, the immediate goal is to find the enzyme that causes a chemical structure change in chlorophyll d, making it different from primarily chlorophyll a, and b, but also from about nine other forms of chlorophyll.

"The synthesis of chlorophyll by an organism is complex, involving 17 different steps in all," Blankenship said. "Some place near the end of this process an enzyme transforms a vinyl group to a formyl group to make chlorophyll d. This transformation of chemical forms is not known in any other chlorophyll molecules."

Blankenship said he and his collaborators have some candidate genes they will test. They hope to insert these genes into an organism that makes just chlorophyll a. If the organism learns to synthesize chlorophyll d with one of the genes, the mystery of chlorophyll d synthesis will be solved, and then the excitement will begin.

Blankenship and his colleagues from both institutions published a paper on their work in the Feb. 4, online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation and also involved collaborators from Australia and Japan. Three Washington University undergraduate students and one graduate student participated in the project, as well as other research personnel.

Harvesting solar power through plants or other organisms that would be genetically altered with the chlorophyll d gene could make them solar power factories that generate and store solar energy. Consider a seven-foot tall corn plant genetically tailored with the chlorophyll d gene to be expressed at the very base of the stalk. While the rest of the plant synthesized chlorophyll a, absorbing short wave light, the base is absorbing "red edge" light in the 710 nanometer range. Energy could be stored in the base without competing with any other part of the plant for photosynthesis, as the rest only makes chlorophyll a. Also, the altered corn using the chlorophyll d gene could become a super plant because of its enhanced ability to harness energy from the sun.

That model is similar to how Acaryochloris marina actually operates in the South Pacific, specifically Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Discovered just 11 years ago, the cyanobacterium lives in a symbiotic relationship with a sponge-like marine animal popularly called a sea squirt . The Acaryochloris marina lives beneath the sea squirt, which is a marine animal that lives attached to rocks just below the surface of the water. The cyanobacterium absorbs "red edge" light through the tissues of its pal the sea squirt.

The genome, said Blankenship, is " fat and happy. Acaryochloris marina lies down there using that far red light that no one else can use. The organism has never been under very strong selection pressure to be lean and mean like other bacteria are. It's kind of in a sweet spot. Living in this environment is what allowed it to have such dramatic genome expansion."

Blankenship said that once the gene that causes the late-step chemical transformation is found and inserted successfully into other plants or organisms, that it could potentially represent a five percent increase in available light for organisms to use.

"We now have genetic information on a unique organism that makes this type of pigment that no other organism does," Blankenship said. "We don't know what all the genes do by any means. But we've just begun the analysis. When we find the chlorophyll d enzyme and then look into transferring it into other organisms, we'll be working to extend the range of potentially useful photosynthesis radiation.'


'GM food is a big opportunity...none of the questions raised about it are serious from a scientific point of view'

- David Baltimore, Nobel Laureate (interview), The Indian Express, Feb. 4, 2008


~ It's often said that if the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st will be the century of biology. And for that to happen, one of the reasons will be my guest this week,Prof David Baltimore, professor at Caltech.


~ In fact professor emeritus such a young age. Nobel laureate in 1975. In fact the year you got your Nobel was the year I graduated in biology. I have done no biology since then, so I'll be a student in this rather than an interviewer. So tell us, do you think you agree with this expectation that this is a century of biology? Or is this journalistic oversimplification?

Well, actually for me the last century was a century of biology, because I grew up in that. I did all my work in the 1900s. And it's amazing to see what happened. So when I started in biology in the 1960s, there was no molecular biology. We just learned about the structure of DNA, working out the meaning of that, and everything has blossomed since then and we now understand all the genes in the human body. At least, we know what they are, we don't necessarily understand them . . .

~ You don't always know the Whys. You know the Whats.

For instance, in cancer, in the 1960s, we had no idea what cancer was about. Today we know cancer's due to genetic mutations, we know a lot of those mutations, we know a lot of how that happens, and we are curing some, and we are not curing a lot of others.

~ Blame my parents for this: Tell me what is it that a common viewer or reader should know about RNA, which is (the field) in which you got your Nobel.

RNA is the intermediate between DNA and the rest of the cell. It carries information out of the nucleus into the cell and then that information is processed so that the cell knows how to work. That is the major function of RNA. Then there are lots of other functions. In fact, there are functions of RNA that are just coming up now. I'll talk about one of them this afternoon in a talk I am giving here in India. Micro RNAs, these are RNAs that control which genes are expressed at what time and there's a whole world of RNA control that's just opening up now.

~ In fact, your own work, which got your the Nobel in 1975, was about changes RNA goes through and changes the cell goes through because of RNA.

That's right. We learned that RNA can be made into DNA and that reverses the standard flow of information in biological systems. It was said that we violated the central dogma of biology in that experiment and it's been very rich. It turns out that a very large part of our own genomes come about by copying RNA into DNA.

~ Probably, when you were talking about this, that was precisely what was happening in many cells that came up as HIV just five or six years later.

About 10 years later.

~ Ten years later. If I remember correctly, five or six years since the Nobel.

Yes. We did the experiment in 1970 and it was actually in 1982 that we began to realise what HIV was.

~ Then you've been working on genome sequencing also.

Not much.

~ Not much, but that's been an area of interest. Are we being too impatient in believing that somehow, genome sequencing, biotechnology, haven't quite produced the miracles we expected of them in cancer, in HIV, in many other incurable diseases.

I think we've asked for it to happen too fast. Cancer's very complicated, it's not one disease, it's hundreds of diseases. In fact, we're learning more and more about the heterogeneity of cancer. So I think it'll be a long time before we eradicate cancer if we ever do.

~ So can we say that in our lifetime cancer is curable, that we'll find a cure for cancer.

I am 70 years old now, so in my lifetime, I doubt it.

~ You doubt it, but you see treatments getting better.

Treatments are getting better every day.

~ Also, I was reading an interview you gave and you said you were a bit disappointed with some of the work on the AIDS vaccine and you said that maybe AIDS is a disease for which there can be no vaccine.

I think we have to consider that possibility but I don't think we should stop working on it just because it is a possibility. We have to work harder and harder, but we may not come up with anything.

~ Why do you say so?

Well, because it's not simple actually. Why does AIDS kill people? It kills people because the virus that causes HIV can grow in our bodies in spite of our immune systems.

~ Right.

How do vaccines work? Vaccines work through the immune system. If the immune system can't stop the virus then how're we ever going to make a vaccine that's better than the natural infection that induces immunity. That's the argument against it.

~ And the argument for?

And the argument for is that we have the most creative science in the world today. Biotechnology. We should be able to find a way to do better than the body's immune system. And to actually stop the virus, using some kind of novel technology. So, many of us are working on what would be novel technology.

~ Can you tell me, a 1975 biology student, what is this novel technology?

Well, there are two kinds of immunity. There's the antibody-based immunity you probably learnt a lot about and there's T cell-based immunity, which you probably didn't learn very much about because in 1975 we didn't know much about it. Today, we know a lot about it and we know it doesn't really play a big role in protecting against viruses. But maybe we can make it play a role. So a lot of what people are doing is trying to get T cell immunity against the virus, which would be novel. And we'll see whether we can do it. What I'm trying to do is use gene therapy method so we actually change the genes in the body to make the body resist HIV infection. And I have a feeling that that maybe the right way to go.

~ And how far have you gone down that road yet?

I have a very big research programme focussed on that. It's about halfway to where I want to be.

~ What drives your heart and your mind? Is it being in the lab?

Science. It's science. Has always been.

~ Because there is an interesting debate in the U.S. in terms of where science is headed, particularly life sciences, and there are people who really worry because some of the candidates in this election don't even believe in evolution. Does that worry you?

Certainly. It bothers me that so many people in the United States don't believe in evolution. So many people believe in the miracle of religious creation. Actually it's not a whole different in the rest of the world. Except in Europe.

~ But does it affect science? Does it affect the prospects for life sciences?

Well, so far it hasn't. So far, we've been able to continue our work in science without being blocked by these religious impulses. But if (Mike) Huckabee (the Republican candidate) became president, for instance, I don't know what would happen. I can't imagine the country would vote for him but . . .

~ But even (President George W.) Bush has blocked stem cell research.

Bush blocked stem cell research, he only allowed a narrow path of stem cell research. Most of the other candidates in the campaign now would reverse that, even the Republicans, I think.

~ Even the Republicans.

Certainly (John) McCain would.

~ So who do you think will be the best candidate in terms of science? In terms of life sciences?

Oh, I don't know. In general, Republicans have been pretty good about life sciences except for these religious things. And Clinton was great for life science. It was under him that we started doubling the NIH budget.

~ And so might Mrs Clinton be?

So might Mrs Clinton be. She has said she might double it again. So I think she would be pretty positive.

~ Is she your candidate?

She is my candidate.

~ You said that with a smile.

Well, you smile, I smile.

~ Now Larry Summers was on the show some time back and we were talking of outsourcing and he said the need for America right now is to rebuild its centres of excellence so intellectual capital around the world has no choice but to gravitate towards the U.S. Do you think some of the restrictions that maybe the Republicans have placed on the life sciences or might place would reverse that? Or has reversed that?

I think that in the stem cell area, in particular, there has been a lot of progress abroad, more than, in some ways, in the United States, partly because of the difficulty in funding the research. It's kept young people out because they don't know what their future would be so it's been inhibitory but there are lots of things in the United States that have been inhibitory. The visa policies and policies about immigration into the United States have made it difficult to get the quality of people and the numbers of people that we used to get. You know, American science is built on immigrants.

~ When you look back last 30 years, and then I'll ask you to predict for the next 30, what have been the five most interesting and important advancements in life sciences?

Without a lot of thought, I don't know if I can say that. Certainly the sequencing of the genome has been a big thing, the understanding of cancer as a genetic process has been a big thing, the recombinant DNA revolution was an enormous thing, the discovery of the structure of the DNA, that's not 30 years but more, but it was monumental and reverberates to this day. That's four. . . I could go on but . . .

~ Talk about your own work on RNA.

Well, the reverse transcription that we discovered had a big effect. It had actually three effects, one of which I saw early on, but the other two I could not have seen. One was that it opened up the ability to work on cancer, the second was that it provided the explanation for HIV, but HIV hadn't been discovered then, and the third was that it started biotechnology, because it gave us a way of capturing genes that we never had before. And so all biotechnology started on the basis of reverse transcribed RNA.

~ What do you expect in the next 30 years? What's your wish for the next 30 years?

Well, huge advances in the treatment of cancer is what my major wish is.

~ Are you disappointed with the pace of movement there?

Well, no, if I look back to, as I said, the 1960s, and I say what's happened since then, it's just extraordinary the pace at which things have moved. Now everybody, the general public, would like things to move faster because they like to believe that we are all miracle workers. We're not. It's very hard doing science.

~ And the next four? You said one on cancer, and in the next 30 years?

Well, one, cancer. Gene therapy as a mode of treatment, I think, is a big opportunity. I think extending biotechnology into other realms, for instance, into energy - can we learn how to capture the sun's energy in more effective ways, particularly, can we find ways of storage of energy that will allow us to build big pots of energy that we derive from the sun but we store in convenient place so we can use it when we need it? I think biology has a lot to offer in that ground. I think genetically modified food is a big opportunity for us, feeding people with nutritious foods that will avoid the problems.

~ You have no ideological position against GM foods?

I have no ideological position against GM foods. I don't see any reason to have one. It's not a matter of ideology, it's a matter of . . .

~ So what your view on the very loud opposition to GM food, this fear, this phobia?

I think it's people holding on to the past. I just think people have a visceral worry about the future and it comes out sometimes and GM food is one place where worries about the future have focussed.

~ But as a scientist, as a scientist who knows more than most other scientists, you have no evidence to worry about GM foods?

I have no evidence at all to worry about it. None of the questions that have been raised about GM foods are really serious issues from a scientific point of view.

~ You will happily eat a GM meal?

Absolutely. If it tastes good.

~ And the fifth? You've talked about cancer, gene therapy, energy, GM.

Right. We should have another one, shouldn't we? Well, since I'm getting old, I guess I should say understanding ageing.

~ Now tell me something about yourself. I've been reading stuff you've done and you've said. There was a case about one of the papers that a colleague of yours wrote and you co-authored. That was questioned and you really stood up for her.


~ It's a risk professors don't take. What happened?

I just believe that there was nothing wrong and I was offended morally by the people who were attacking it and I just felt that I had the responsibility to help her. She was an immigrant scientist, she didn't speak English particularly well, and we managed to save her career.

~ The reason I ask you this is because a lot of the young scientists in India complain that our guides and professors don't tell us enough. That they don't stand by us.

Yeah? Well, they should.

~ And that they are too selfish.

You know, I've lived my whole life as a teacher. I have something approaching 200 people whom I have trained. I am very, very proud of that. I worry about those people, I try to help them, help their careers. Even the people I trained 25 years ago, I am still writing letters for them.

~ People you've trained, some of them will start earning those Nobels.

I would love that to happen but many of them are members of the National Academy of Sciences.

~ I think you told one of your interviewers that you don't have the word 'relax' in your dictionary. Isn't that being too hard on yourself?

No, it came up, I think, because he was talking about stress. And I don't know what stress is all about. For myself, I love living the life I lead. It's very busy. I fly, I go around. I put stress on my body, I suppose, but I love it. And I love the opportunity to be a part of the international world.

~ And this army of 200 odd students, who are all, I'm sure, following up on the great work you do.

Many of them are actually coming to join me for my 70th birthday, which is in a month and a half.

~ Well professor, a very happy birthday, many happy returns in advance.

Thank you very much.

~ Many more discoveries and many more accolades in the years to come. And big challenges, including one right now, of helping India develop some centres of excellence in biology.

That's what I hope we can do.

Thank you.


Organic Original

- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology, Jan. 31, 2008


I was a teenage organic farmer.

In the 1940s, when my father taught me how to work the land near Rudd, Iowa, we didn't use commercial fertilizers (it wasn't available). Instead, we plowed down clover and alfalfa for the nitrogen. We also used livestock manure.

Nobody labeled us "organic farmers," but that's who we were.

The first time we bought commercial fertilizer, I was in grade school. It was "3-12-12" because those were the ingredients: 3 parts nitrogen, 12 parts phosphate, and 12 parts potash. The fertilizer came in 80-pound bags that we had to lug around and keep dry. If a bag got wet, it would harden and we would have to smash it apart. We applied 50 pounds per acre for corn.

What I remember most of all, however, was the result: The corn shot up faster, the fields grew greener, and there was more of everything. We never looked back.

Today, people who call themselves organic farmers try to avoid commercial fertilizers. That's their choice, but to me they aren't organic farmers so much as old-fashioned ones. They aren't a wave of the future, but a blast from the past.

The very term "organic farming" is a strange one--so strange, in fact, that "organic" recently made the "List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse, and General Uselessness."

Since 1975, Lake Superior State University in Michigan has issued this amusing list on New Year's Day. For 12 months, LSSU accepts nominations through its website for words and phrases that ought to be purged from our language. Then it selects a few that deserve a permanent place in the rhetorical trash bin.

For the latest list, more than a dozen made the cut--and the worthiest loser, in my view, is "organic."

Most dictionaries define "organic" as a word that pertains to organs or organisms, but in common speech it now means so many things that it has come to mean nothing. Crystal Giordano of Brooklyn, N.Y. was one of its nominators: "Overused and misused to describe not only food, but computer products or human behavior, and often used when describing something as 'natural.'"

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, lists all kinds of applications. An "organic organization" is supposed to be flat and flexible, rather than hierarchical and rigid. In business, "organic growth" refers to increases in sales and output rather than increases through mergers and takeovers. In France, there's even something called "organic law." Maybe it has something to do with regulations on how to eat snails.

Most often, "organic" is applied to food--and that's what really bugs several of the word's nominators, according to the LSSU press release.

"I'm tired of health food stores selling products that they say are organic," complains Chad Jacobson of Park Falls, Wis. "All the food we eat is organic!"

Obviously, Mr. Jacobson has never munched on a pizza that tastes like cardboard--but technically, he's correct.

"The possibility of a food item being inorganic, i.e., not being composed of carbon atoms, is nil," comments John Gomila of New Orleans.

Good point--even if my grandkids entertain doubts about their school cafeterias' mystery meat.

The bottom line is that all food is organic, whether it's processed with genetically modified soybeans or grown in a hand-tilled backyard garden in a fantasyland called Nature's Valley.

There's a market in the United States for so-called organic food, and if certain farmers want to meet it through old-fashioned practices, then by all means they should go right ahead. That's their choice.

But let's not kid ourselves: "Organic" farming is inefficient and hard to square with the demands of modern life. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, has estimated that if the world were to switch to "organic" farming, the fall in food production would cost the lives of 2 billion people.

That's a lot of organic organisms.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology


Doug Powell talks about genetically engineered and conventional sweet corn at Farmer Jeff's farm -- 2001

- SafeFoodCafe, YouTube, Feb. 1, 2008


Goofy theatrics, big hair, an abundance of earnestness? Video was new to us back then, but we shot some anyway. And now that youtube exists, we can share those movies with you. So enjoy.

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