Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





February 28, 2008


China, Korea embracing biotech; New phytase corn; Beet growers ignore lawsuit


* Food Prices Push China Towards GMO
* South Korea makes first GMO corn deal
* GM crops hold key to food security
* Ag biotech market to exceed $8.0 billion by 2009
* Beet growers ignore lawsuit
* Phytase Corn developed in China
* Seed bank a dubious hedge
* Draft sequence of corn genome
* Sheep Genome Mapping Now Complete
* Nanoparticle chicken feed
* How Plants Form Cell Walls


High Food Prices Push China Towards GMO - Scientist

- Lucy Hornby, Reuters via PlanetArk, Feb. 28, 2008


BEIJING - Rising food prices and concerns over grains security have caused a shift in Chinese regulators' attitude towards genetically modified crops, a prominent Chinese researcher and GMO advocate said on Wednesday.

More than two-thirds of Chinese cotton fields are planted with biotech cotton, but the government has stalled on approving biotech rice to be grown commercially despite expectations it would get the go-ahead a few years ago.

However, soaring grains and food prices in 2007, and a relentless decline in arable farm land, may change the approach of bureaucrats who prize the nation's ability to stay self-sufficient in grains.

"I feel that over the next few years, things will move more quickly than in the last few years," said Huang Jikun, director for the centre for Chinese agricultural policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"The government slogan has now changed to 'regularise oversight' from 'toughen oversight', and as we all know, 'toughen oversight' basically meant 'block it'."

Huang said it was impossible to predict when China might approve biotech rice, and added that work on soy and wheat was less advanced.

"They have changed their ideas because they see the usefulness of technology for maintaining grains security, raising rural incomes and other policy goals," he told reporters.

"High food prices are influencing government considerations. Of course, they want technology that can help lower food prices."

China is also trying to develop its own strains of genetically modified corn, but Huang said work was progressing slowly, adding that he hoped the nation would establish co-operations with overseas institutions to speed research.


Rice and cotton have to date attracted the most investment in China, which has also approved petunias, delayed-ripening tomatoes, sweet peppers, poplars to combat desertification and a virus-resistant papaya.

Most work in China to date has focused on strains that are tolerant of herbicides or resistant to pests, in line with "first generation" biotech crops internationally, Huang said.

The second generation will be crops that have "stacked" traits, or more than one modification, and those that can survive drought or excessive salt incursions, said Clive James, chair of the board at the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

More than a third of biotech crops grown in the United States -- world leader for GMO crops -- have multiple traits, James said.

He expects drought-tolerant corn to be commercially available in the US by 2011, while wheat is currently being tested in drought-stricken Australia and India is working on drought-resistant rice.

"This may be the most promising set of genes. No farmer in the world can afford to be without it," James said.


South Korea breaks GMO taboo with first corn deal

- Angela Moon, Reuters, Feb. 26, 2008


SEOUL - South Korea has for the first time bought genetically-modified corn for food, risking a backlash from consumer groups to secure cheaper grains.

With record high global wheat, corn and other food prices making governments increasingly anxious about staple supplies and quickening inflation, the debate over the merits and safety of GMO crops is taking on new urgency.

On Tuesday South Korea, one of only two countries in Asia to stick with more expensive non-GMO corn for food use, said it will import 50,000 tons of U.S. genetically-altered corn in May for manufacturing starch and sweeteners.

Trade sources said the decision was economic. Corn that has not been modified costs around $50 a ton more than the genetically-altered variety, an important factor when corn prices have more than doubled in the last two years.

But it has drawn ire from consumer groups, who say it will expose consumers to possible health risks, echoing European resistance to what lobby groups there call "Frankenstein foods."

"If the companies go ahead with the move the groups will join hands and carry out campaigning and boycott products from those manufacturers," said spokesman Kim Dae-hoon of ICOOP, South Korea's largest consumer lobby group.

Daesung, Doosan Corn Products Korea, Samyang Genex and Shindongbang CP -- which supply nearly 90 percent of South Korea's corn starch and sugar -- have signed a joint contract for the May purchase.

"They've decided to buy GMO for food to avoid an increase in prices for consumers," said one agriculture trade source, adding that manufacturers will hope that the price issue will help neutralize criticism from anti-GMO lobby groups.

Governments around the world have been struggling with the inflationary impact of higher food and oil prices, with corn joining a long list of staples from vegetable oils to crude oil that have been hitting record highs.

The price of non-genetically altered corn was about $150 per ton on average in 2006 and has risen to more than $400 in recent months.

Avoiding GMO corn has also become increasingly difficult as major producers switch to varieties that offer benefits such as higher yields or drought resistance.

The global GMO planted area grew 13 percent to 252 million acres in 2006, and the number of farmers planting GMO crops rose 21 percent due to substantial economic, social and environmental benefits, according to the pro-GMO International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

The bulk of commercial GM crops used in wealthy industrial countries ends up in feed for livestock.

While the United States is the world's top supplier of biotech crops, consumers in Europe have shown skepticism and outright hostility.

The international biotech industry insists its products are safe and no different from conventional foods. It in an argument that has so far failed to convince many of the EU's 27 governments.


GM crops hold key to food security: Expert

- Sourav Mishra & Abhishek Shanker, The Economic Times (India), Feb. 26, 2008


MUMBAI: India, which recorded the fastest growth in genetically modified (GM) crop adoption globally, could attain food self sufficiency once it allows commercialisation of GM crops, the head of a global research body said on Monday. "India can become self sufficient in food production by use of biotechnology in food crops," Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, said.

India, with a shortage in wheat, edible oils and a tight supply in rice, has a Rs 25000-crore food security mission, aimed at producing an additional 8 million tonnes of wheat, 10 million tonnes of rice and 2 million tonnes of pulses in 4 years.

India, the world's second-biggest wheat producer, bought 5.5 million tonnes of the grain in 2006 and 1.8 million tonnes last year, igniting global commodity markets. It is the world's second biggest importer of edible oils with imports meeting over 40% of demand. It banned non-basmati rice exports to meet domestic need, after 2007-08 summer output was seen stagnant.

"The story of Bt cotton in India is remarkable....it can replicate the success in food crops," said James.

India surpassed the US to become the second biggest producer of cotton in 2006-07, after adopting GM crops. India's GM cotton area is estimated at 6.3 million hectares or 66% of the total cotton area in 2007-08, up from 3.7 million hectares in 2006-07, according to Cotton Advisory Board.

The government allowed commercial cultivation of bacillus thuringiensis or Bt cotton, the country's first GM crop in 2002, leading to protests from activists, who say GM crops are a health hazard. This delayed approval of GM food crops.

The country's first expected GM food crop is brinjal. Field trials of GM brinjal started in August 2007 and is expected to be commercialised by 2009, said CD Mayee, a senior scientist, and chairman Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board.

"Among food crops the big opportunity is in rice," said James. India, second largest rice producer, is field testing GM rice, and expects commercialisation by 2011, Mayee said.

In rice, India is competing with China, the largest producer. China is in final stages of commercialising GM rice, James said.

"Biotech can solve bio-fuel needs of the world...India, the second biggest producer of sugar, is likely to gain," James said.

Mayee said India is working towards getting technology for developing GM sugarcane with better ethanol output from Brazil. India is sitting on a stock pile of sugar with output of about 27.5 million tonnes and a carryover stock of over 6 million tonnes against an annual consumption of about 20 million tonnes.

James, however, said application of biotech in jatropha, the energy crop, which leads India's biotech campaign, will be possible only after the first generation of GM food, feed and fiber crops are developed.

"The biggest risk associated with this technology in India is not using it," James said.


Global agricultural biotechnology market to exceed $8.0 billion by 2009, according to a new report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc.

- Global Industry Analysts, Inc. (press release) via SeedQuest, Feb. 25, 2008


The global agricultural biotechnology market is projected to exceed US$8.0 billion by 2010, growing at a compounded annual rate of over 10% during the analysis period. Despite several controversies surrounding the consumption of genetically modified food, agricultural biotechnology market continues to be resilient and is projected to witness robust growth over the next five years.

Biotechnology is considered to be the most promising technology that can provide lasting solution to various problems ranging from food shortage to preservation of environmental resources. Much of the interest in biotechnology stems from rapid dissemination in North America and other exporting countries of genetically engineered (GE) crops such as soybeans, cotton, canola, and corn. In agricultural biotechnology, wide array of transgenic crops integrate genetically altered and enhanced attributes that assist plants to build resistance against particular pests and herbicides.

United States is the largest agricultural biotechnology market in the world and is projected to cross US$5 billion by the year 2010, as stated by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. Asia-Pacific is the fastest growing agricultural biotechnology market in the world and is projected to expand at a CAGR of over 14% during the ten-year analysis period. Transgenic seeds market is the largest and the fastest growing segment in the global agricultural biotechnology market and is projected to cross US$8 billion by the year 2009, expanding at a compounded annual rate of over 10% during the analysis period.

Worldwide nations have set different standards regarding the amount of Genetically Modified (GM) ingredients.

However, in the long term, a cautious approach has to be adopted to meticulously evaluate present and future products for clarifying several ambiguities about the long-term effects of consuming GM food. Researchers also need to study long-term effects on vulnerable consumers such as children and infants. In this direction the latest directives from the EU can be considered as a crucial step closer to final authorization of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The report titled "Agricultural Biotechnology: A Global Strategic Business Report" published by Global Industry Analysts, Inc., provides strategic content on available transgenic cropland worldwide, ethical, environmental and legal issues facing the industry, biotech research initiatives, M&A activity, competitive scenario, regulatory environment, and other strategic corporate developments. The study also analyzes market data and analytics in value sales for regions such as USA, Canada, Asia-Pacific (including Japan), Latin America, and Rest of World by the following product segments -- Transgenic Seeds/Crops (Soybean, Corn, Cotton, and Others), and Biopesticides.

Leading players in the global agricultural biotechnology market include Bayer CropScience AG, Certis USA, Dow AgroSciences LLC, Emerald BioAgriculture Corporation, Makhteshim-Agan Industries Ltd., Monsanto Company, Mycogen Seeds, Performance Plants Inc., Pioneer Hi-Bred International, and Syngenta International AG.

For more details about this research report, please visit http://www.strategyr.com/Agricultural_Biotechnology_Market_Report.asp


Beet growers ignore lawsuit

Farmers continue with Roundup Ready plantings

- Dave Wilkins, Capital Press, Feb. 15, 2008


U.S. sugar farmers still plan to grow Roundup Ready beets this year despite a lawsuit filed by food safety advocates, environmentalists and an organic seed group, industry officials said.

"Growers just need to continue to proceed as planned," Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said by telephone this week.

A lawsuit filed Jan. 23 by the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club and High Mowing Seeds seeks to derail the genetically engineered crop.

The groups allege that the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the crop without fully considering the implications for consumers, organic seed crops and the environment.

But sugar beet growers counter that the federal government conducted a full review of Roundup Ready sugar beets and gave the technology its stamp of approval. The crop was deregulated in the United States in 2005.

Since then, a few thousand acres of Roundup Ready beets have been grown in some large-scale demonstration projects and limited commercial plantings in states such as Idaho, Wyoming and Michigan.

The GM seed is expected to be widely available this year for the first time, and many growers had planned to grow the crop. More than 95 percent of Idaho's sugar beet acreage is expected to be in Roundup Ready varieties this year, Amalgamated Sugar Co. officials said earlier this winter.

The lawsuit filed in January is a "tactical move" by opponents to slow things down, Markwart said.

"This legal action is just something that has to play itself out," he said. "It's not going to have any effect on the crop this spring ... Growers can clearly plan on moving forward."

Roundup Ready sugar beets are genetically engineered to withstand Monsanto's popular glyphosate herbicide. The technology allows growers to spray their entire fields with Roundup, killing problem weeds while causing little or no injury to the beet crop.

Duane Grant grew Roundup Ready sugar beets on his farm near Rupert, Idaho, in 2006 as part of a demonstration project.

"The Roundup Ready beets performed extraordinarily well," he said. "As a grower, I'm very impressed with the technology and look forward to using it on my own farm."

One of the major arguments in the lawsuit is that Roundup Ready seed will cross-pollinate with chard, table beets and other related seed crops in Oregon's Willamette Valley where much of the nation's sugar beet seed is grown.

But there are safeguards in place to prevent that from occurring, Grant said.

"The sugar beet seed industry has coexisted with other seed industries in the Willamette Valley for better than 50 years now," he said.

"They have a system of assuring the integrity of the seed that's in everyone's best interest," Grant said. "It's closely adhered to by the seed producers in the valley."

Grant said the timing of the lawsuit is suspect.

"It borders on irresponsible behavior ... to file this just as sugar beet farmers are preparing to go to the field and plant," Grant said. "If (the plaintiffs) were so concerned, they've had three years to bring this issue to the court."

Plaintiffs in the case also raised the issue of food safety.

But industry officials insist that the sugar produced from Roundup Ready beets is identical to the sugar from conventionally grown beets.

Roundup Ready sugar and its byproducts have been approved in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and several other countries, officials said.


Origin Agritech Announces World's First Genetically Modified Phytase Corn

Phytase Corn developed by Leading Biotech Scientists in China

GM Phytase Corn Saves Feed Costs and Improves the Environment

- Origin Agritech Ltd. (press release), Feb. 27, 2008


BEIJING - Origin Agritech Limited (NASDAQ GS: SEED) ("Origin"), a leading technology-focused supplier of crop seeds and agri-biotech research in China, today announced it has licensed a new genetically modified corn to officially introduce the next generation of corn product into China. Origin's phytase corn is expected to be one of the first transgenic corn approved and sold commercially into the domestic marketplace. Transgenic phytase corn is expected to be commercially launched in 2009.

Phytase is currently used as an additive in animal feed to breakdown phytic acid in corn, which holds 60% of the phosphorus in corn. Phytase increases phosphorus absorption in animals by 60%. Phosphorus is an essential element for the growth and development of all animals, and plays key roles in skeletal structure and in vital metabolic pathways. Phytase, as an additive for animal feed, is mandatory in Europe, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan for environmental purposes.

The worldwide phytase potential market size is US$500 million, including US$200 million for China alone, according to the China Feed Industry Study. The corn seed market in China is estimated at US$1 billion. While currently microbiology is universally used to produce phytase, Origin plans to be the world's first to introduce transgenic phytase corn.

Phytase transgenic corn, developed by and licensed from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science (CAAS) after 7 years of study, will allow animal feed producers the ability to eliminate purchasing phytase and corn separately. It will eliminate the need for mixing the two ingredients together, saving time, machinery, and labor for the animal feed producers.

"Phytic acid, the main form of phosphorous in plant-origin animal feeds, is poorly available to monogastric animals as they lack the enzyme capable of hydrolyzing phytic acid to release phosphate. Genetic modification is the world class standard and that is where China is moving," Dr. Yun-Liu Fan, a distinguished scientist of CAAS and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering commented. She continued, "our genetically modified corn will reduce the need for such phosphate supplements and reduce feed costs. We partnered with Origin because of their strong execution ability, research and production capability, and sales network to benefit the Chinese animal nutrition market."

Origin's GMO phytase-producing corn is expected to reduce the need for inorganic phosphate supplements as animals will directly absorb more phosphate from their feed, reducing animal feed's high cost. Inorganic phosphates may be contaminated with fluorin and heavy metal residues created in the manufacturing process. These fluorin and heavy metal residues in the feedstuff are toxic to animals, and dangerous to humans.

In China, annual fecal phosphorus from animals totals 2.5 million tons which has led to serious environmental problem. The usage of this product should also reduce the phosphorus pollution caused by animal waste and excess fertilizer use. Phytic acid in animal manure is a major source of phosphate pollution. Phytase decreases the excretion of organic phosphorus in feces by 40%, thus largely reducing phosphate pollution.

Phytase transgenic corn has passed the Ministry of Agriculture evaluation for safety in the transgenic "intermediate-test" and "environmental-release" stages and is currently in the final stage of evaluation for "production test" safety.

The Chinese animal feed market is large and increasing to fill the growing demand for meat products by the large populations in China. On average, people in more developed countries consume an average of 75 kilograms (kg) of meat annually with recent meat consumption in China at only 23kg per person annually. However, China is the world's leading pork producer with over 50% of the world's production and consumption. Over 530 million hogs are raised annually in China, as pork is the traditional meat of the Chinese people and represents approximately 65% of all meats consumed in the country. According to RTT news, official data revealed that prices of food items soared in early January 2008, and pork prices climbed 43% on an annual basis in January 2008. China's rising middle class is demanding more meat consumption, as it is estimated that for every 1% increase in take-home pay, the average Chinese family will increase its meat consumption by 2%.

Dr. Gengchen Han, Origin's Chairman and Co-Chief Executive Officer, said, "In the past few years, our focus on key biotechnology has accelerated significantly. With our 40 in-house R&D professionals mainly engaged in the research of genetic transformation, molecular biomarker testing and genetic mapping activities, and our external alliances with top agriculture biotech research institutions in China, Origin has established several genetic engineering plant technology platforms which include herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, nitrogen efficiency, and drought stress tolerance in corn inbred lines. We look forward to the commercial roll-out of Phytase corn seeds."


Seed bank a dubious hedge against future calamities

- Iain Hunter, The Victoria Times (Canada), Feb. 27, 2008


The world, or those parts of it not actively involved in wars and elections, is going gaga over what's known as the Doomsday Vault -- a huge tunnel in permafrost where all the plant seeds the world's human beings need to survive are being stored in case they're needed.

It's described as a Noah's Ark for plants that feed mankind. It's said the seeds, carefully selected, can keep for ages, depending on their type. It's said that if some disaster, like global warming, worldwide pestilence or blight wipes out the world's supply of broccoli, say, seeds can be taken from the vault where they've lain cold and still for generations to rebroccolify fields everywhere, to the delight of kids for eternity.

Barley, scientists say, can survive 2,000 years in that icebox in the Svalbard archipelago off the northern tip of Norway, just 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole. Wheat is supposed to be able to survive 1,700 years and sorghum almost 20,000 years under those conditions.

It surprises me to learn that the Norwegians have made all this possible. And it's because the Norwegians have the right to say so, no genetically modified seeds will be allowed in their icebox: They won't allow any plant but the real thing into their country.

This seems odd, though, if it means that if the world's wheat is wiped out we have to start back where our ancestors did. You'd think with people starving around the world and all, they'd want to use the strains with the highest yield and the most resistance to disease that they could.

And I'll bet no one's had the courage to suggest a couple of boxes of B.C. bud seed might be laid aside for a rainy day too. Or lodgepole pine cones which the pine beetle has rendered so precious here already.

It's unlikely the Norwegians could be swayed. People who go around on cross-country skis all the time tend to have one-track minds.

And what they're focused on, as their prime minister said on opening day at the vault yesterday, is preserving biological diversity, which is under threat from "the forces of nature" and "the actions of man."

We're told this James Bond-type cavern in solid rock is necessary as a backup to about 1,500 seed gene banks that already exist around the globe. These are considered vulnerable to things like wars and earthquakes. One in Afghanistan has been looted and destroyed. One in the Philippines was scattered by a typhoon.

But there are reports that suggest relying on seed banks is no panacea for ensuring the preservation of the biological diversity of food plants and, by extension, the preservation of those orange-skinned vegetarians in our midst.

Thousands of deposited seeds have apparently died on deposit, many lack proper identification and so are useless for crop regeneration, many have lost the unique characteristics they had when banked, many more have been contaminated during withdrawals at the bank.

Some grumpy grain-growers say prolonged freezing won't make that much difference. And they wonder how secure even that cavern near the pole can be -- it was certified as an earthquake-free zone, yet the biggest temblor in Norway's history hit Svalbard just days before yesterday's opening.

Grain-growers are particularly incensed that access to the vault, if and when it's needed, will be up to the Norwegian government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust -- a private outfit supported by food corporations.

The bank, they say, won't take seeds that haven't been successfully duplicated in other seed banks, and won't take the kinds of seeds it already has on deposit. They say it's a private stash that benefits transnational seed corporations that are buying up public plant-breeding programs and destroying crop diversity.

Instead of shutting seeds away to preserve diversity in case of some hypothetical catastrophe, the grain growers argue, the world should be encouraging diversity production by today's farmers for today's markets.

Well, I'm not so sure we can rely on farmers any more than scientists. We've been warned that global warming will require big changes to the way food is produced.

But isn't it extraordinary how easy it is to save seeds for the far-distant future while so many around the globe are going hungry today?

And isn't it odd how easy it is to prepare for what might be coming rather than to try to fight it?


Scientists unveil draft sequence of corn genome

- Washington University in St. Louis (press release), Feb. 25, 2008


A team of scientists led by Washington University in St. Louis has begun to unlock the genetic secrets of corn, a crop vital to U.S. agriculture. The researchers have completed a working draft of the corn genome, an accomplishment that should accelerate efforts to develop better crop varieties to meet society's growing demands for food, livestock feed and fuel.

Corn, also known as maize, underlies myriads of products, from breakfast cereal, meat and milk to toothpaste, shoe polish and ethanol.

The genetic blueprint will be announced on Thursday, Feb. 28, by the project's leader, Richard K. Wilson, Ph.D., director of Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center, at the 50th Annual Maize Genetics Conference in Washington, D.C.

"This first draft of the genome sequence is exciting because it's the first comprehensive glimpse at the blueprint for the corn plant," Wilson says. "Scientists now will be able to accurately and efficiently probe the corn genome to find ways to improve breeding and subsequently increase crop yields and resistance to drought and disease."

The $29.5 million project was initiated in 2005 and is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy. "Corn is one of the most economically important crops for our nation," says NSF director Arden L. Bement Jr. "Completing this draft sequence of the corn genome constitutes a significant scientific advance and will foster growth of the agricultural community and the economy as a whole."

The team working on the endeavor, including scientists at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and Iowa State University, has already made the sequencing information accessible to scientists worldwide by depositing it in GenBank, an online public DNA database. The genetic data is also available at maizesequence.org.

The draft covers about 95 percent of the corn genome, and scientists will spend the remaining year of the grant refining and finalizing the sequence. "Although it's still missing a few bits, the draft genome sequence is empowering," Wilson explains. "Virtually all the information is there, and while we may make some small modifications to the genetic sequence, we don't expect major changes."

The group sequenced a variety of corn known as B73, developed at Iowa State decades ago. It is noted for its high grain yields and has been used extensively in both commercial corn breeding and in research laboratories.

The genome will be a key tool for researchers working to improve varieties of corn and other cereal crops, including rice, wheat and barley. "There's a lot of great research on the horizon," says plant biologist Ralph S. Quatrano, Ph.D., the Spencer T. Olin Professor and chair of Washington University's Department of Biology. "The genome will help unravel the basic biology of corn. That information can be used to look for genes that make corn more nutritious or more efficient for ethanol production, for example."

Corn is only the second crop after rice to have its genome sequenced, and scientists will now be able to look for genetic similarities and differences between the crops, Quatrano adds.

"The maize genome sequence will be of great interest to maize geneticists and biologists around the world, but also will be an important resource for plant breeding and biotechnology companies," says project collaborator Rob Martienssen, Ph.D., of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "The maize sequence will be an invaluable reference for research, especially in renewable energy and biofuels, similar in significance to the human genome sequence for biomedical research".

The genetic code of corn consists of 2 billion bases of DNA, the chemical units that are represented by the letters T, C, G and A, making it similar in size to the human genome, which is 2.9 billion letters long. By comparison, the rice genome is far smaller, containing about 430 million bases.

The challenge for Wilson and his colleagues was to string together the order of the letters, an immense and daunting task both because of the corn genome's size and its complex genetic arrangements. About 80 percent of the DNA segments are repeated, and corn also has 50,000 to 60,000 genes, roughly double the number of human genes. Mobile genes, or transposons, make up a significant portion of the genome, further complicating sequencing efforts.

"Sequencing the corn genome was like putting together a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with lots of blue sky and blue water, with only a few small sailboats on the horizon," Wilson explains. "There were not a lot of landmarks to help us fit the pieces of the genome together."


Sheep Genome Mapping Now Complete

- Wisconsin Ag Connection, Feb. 27, 2008


With the January announcement of the completion of the virtual DNA map of the sheep genome, the sheep industry has moved one step closer to pinpointing the genetic controls for economically important production traits. This breakthrough will allow more breeding success for improved wool, enhanced carcass quality, increased fertility and the ability to cope with parasites.

The International Sheep Genomics Consortium is a partnership of scientists and funding agencies from the United States, Australia, France, Kenya, New Zealand and United Kingdom who have come together to develop public genomic resources that will help researchers find genes associated with production, quality and disease traits in sheep.

"The main goal of this genomics research is to improve animal health and production traits," explained Noelle Cockett, Ph.D., College of Agriculture dean and vice president for extension and agriculture at Utah State University and the sheep genome coordinator for the United States. "The map is a tool that will increase our efficiency in searching for those genetic components that are so valuable to the sheep producer and to the consumer of our products."

Quantitative genetics has been used for many years in selecting animals for improved production such as growth, yield and efficiency. The addition of genomic technology has the potential to lead to more accurate and rapid change, especially for traits that are difficult to measure like disease resistance, feed efficiency and product quality. Genomic information will also provide the basis for the development of precision management systems. Knowledge of an animal's genotype will allow precise sorting into the optimal production-management environment.

The science team has created the underlying information that will allow a SNP chip to scan the genome for 60,000 variants in a single pass, rather than having to conduct separate tests for each variant. This step will allow sheep producers to select animals based on DNA markers that can indicate useful traits from birth.

In a meeting with Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, Burdell Johnson, president of the American Sheep Industry Association, requested that sheep genomics funding be a priority for the department.


Clemson researchers develop nanoparticle chicken feed

- Clemson University (press release), Feb. 21, 2008


CLEMSON, S.C. - Poultry is big business in South Carolina and Clemson University scientists are using nanotechnology to keep the birds and consumers healthy.

The researchers are developing drug-free ways to keep chickens and humans from contracting illnesses.

More than 200 million broilers and layers are raised in the Palmetto State. The industry has moved toward bigger broiler farms with flocks of between 150,000 and 300,000 birds becoming common.

Chickens are susceptible to disease. An illness in a handful of birds can spread throughout a facility housing thousands. Vaccines and medications can be effective but pose risks to growers and consumers. Each flock has particular health and immunity profiles, so chicks from different breeders do not respond to vaccines and diseases the same way. What's more, bacteria can build up "antibiotic resistance" making the drugs less effective.

For consumers, poultry can harbor bacteria, viruses and fungi that do not affect them but do cause human illnesses, especially when poultry is undercooked or mishandled during food preparation.

Researchers are looking for drug-free alternatives. Clemson scientists have made a promising discovery using nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is tiny science - working with materials 1/100,000th the size of a human hair. Scientists are seeking to shrink materials down to the scale of atoms, creating particles that show promise for making better medicines, faster computers and safer foods.

Jeremy Tzeng and Clemson colleagues Fred Stutzenberger, Robert Latour Jr. and Ya-Ping Sun have built nanoparticles that mimic the host cell surface in poultry and locks to the targeted pathogens. The particles then bind together and are purged through the bowel. Tzeng calls it "intelligent chicken feed."

"If we use this physical purging, physical removal, we are not using antibiotics so the chance of the microorganism becoming resistant to it is really small," Tzeng said.

To protect the discovery, Clemson technology transfer officials are patenting it. Tzeng says that it will take more research and testing before the nanoparticle is ready to be used, but in the not-so-distant future, chickens and humans may live better lives due to intelligent chicken feed.


Clues To How Plants Form Cell Walls Could Aid Biofuels, Nanotech

- University of Massachusetts Amherst (press release), Feb. 27, 2008


When plant cells divide, they assemble molecular building blocks into new cell walls made of carbohydrate and protein, but scientists know almost nothing about how this process occurs. A team of researchers including Maura Cannon of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has found that the first step in building new plant cell walls is the assembly of a scaffold made of structural proteins, a process similar to using a metal or wood scaffold to construct the walls of a building.

Cannon was joined by colleagues from Ohio University and the University of Sussex, England. Results were published in the Feb. 12, 2008 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Unlocking the secrets of how plants build cell walls could lead to better materials for the production of biofuels such as ethanol from cellulose, plant fibers that are a cheaper and more plentiful alternative to the starches currently used. "Plant cell walls are the most abundant biomass on Earth," says Cannon, a professor in the biochemistry department. "If we know how the cell wall assembles, we can exploit this information to engineer plants with cell wall structures and compositions that are commercially desirable."

Nanotechnology, which depends on molecules that can assemble themselves into an organized structure without external direction, is another field that could benefit. "The structural proteins in plant cell walls know how to self-assemble," says Cannon. "They do it all the time. Since the most abundant proteins on Earth can self-assemble, we should be able to figure out how the process works. Such knowledge will be fundamental to the success of the emerging nanotechnology industry."

Cannon's research is based on Arabidopsis thaliana or Thale Cress, a flowering weed from the mustard family that is common in North America. Arabidopsis was the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced, and scientists have created a library with mutated copies of every gene. Cannon and graduate students Qi Hall and Yumei Wang selected Arabidopsis embryos with a mutation in a specific gene called RSH. This lethal mutation results in embryos with irregular cell shapes and sizes. Electron micrographs of the embryos showed that normal cell walls were unable to form, indicating that the protein produced by the RSH gene was critical to their formation.

Protein produced by the RSH gene in wild-type Arabidopsis plants was purified and studied by Marcia Kieliszewski at Ohio University and Derek Lamport at the University of Sussex and identified as AtEXT3, an extensin protein that turned out to have some interesting qualities. Laboratory tests showed that molecules of AtEXT3 are able to recognize each other and link together at sites that contain a specific amino acid.

Atomic force microscopy performed by Liwei Chen at Ohio University showed AtEXT3 forming a network of ropes that overlap and link to form a scaffold that branches like the limbs of a tree. Areas with positive charges are exposed in the scaffold. Cannon proposes that AtEXT3, which concentrates along the new wall formed when plant cells divide, forms a network with positive charges that attract molecules of negatively charged pectin like a magnet. "The positively charged AtEXT3 scaffold serves as a guide for the deposition of pectin to form a highly organized matrix," says Cannon.

Cannon's research can be applied to any plant, since structural proteins are part of the cell wall of all plant species. A recent grant from the National Science Foundation allows Cannon and Kieliszewski to continue working on AtEXT3. "Once we know which parts of the molecule are most important, and determine how they affect the cell wall, we could make synthetic extensins that produce designer plants with a cell wall composition and structure that meets the needs of industry," says Cannon. "The possibilities would be endless."

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