Drought-tolerant maize for Africa; Mexico approves rules; Hawaii and GM taro
* AATF to develop drought-tolerant maize for Africa
* Mexico approves rules to begin planting GM corn
* French farmers lose bid to overturn GM corn ban
* GM's stumbling block is EU politicians
* Hawaii mulling moratorium on GM taro
* Small helpers in the genome
* Gene 'knockout' floors tobacco carcinogen
African Agricultural Technology Foundation to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties for small-scale farmers in Africa
Long-term goal of public-private partnership is to reduce crop failure, alleviate hunger and poverty
- African Agricultural Technology Foundation (press release), Mar. 19, 2008
KAMPALA - The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) today announced a public-private partnership to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties for Africa. The partnership, known as Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), was formed in response to a growing call by African farmers, leaders, and scientists to address the devastating effects of drought on small-scale farmers and their families. Frequent drought leads to crop failure, hunger, and poverty. Climate change will only worsen the problem.
AATF announced the effort at the end of a two-day planning meeting that included representatives from each of the countries participating in the project: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. The partners will use marker-assisted breeding and biotechnology to develop African maize varieties with the long-term goal of making drought-tolerant maize available royalty-free to African small-scale farmers. The benefits and safety of these maize varieties will be assessed by national authorities according to the regulatory requirements in each country.
'This partnership fits well with the AATF mandate of facilitating innovative public/private partnerships that bring to smallholder farmers in Africa the tools needed to increase productivity for better food and income security,' Said Mpoko Bokanga, Executive Director AATF.
AATF will work with the non-profit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT); the private agricultural company, Monsanto; and the national agricultural research systems in the participating countries. The new drought-tolerance technologies have already been licensed without charge to AATF so they can be developed, tested, and eventually distributed to African seed companies through AATF without royalty and made available to smallholder farmers. Bokanga added that the project will involve local institutions, both public and private, and in the process expand their capacity and experience in crop breeding, biotechnology, and biosafety. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation contributed a total of $47 million to this effort.
The Director General of the National Agricultural Research Organisation of Uganda Dr. Dennis Kyetere presided over the official announcement of the initiative and said that the project will help address drought and contribute to food security in Africa. 'Drought is a source of suffering and food insecurity for many people in Uganda and it is recognised as a challenge by the government. Drought causes up to 100 percent crop failure in Uganda in some instances', said Dr. Kyetere.
Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky for millions of small-scale farmers who rely on rainfall to water their crops. Maize is the most widely grown staple crop in Africa: more than 300 million Africans depend on it as their main food source. It is severely affected by frequent drought.
In the next five years, the partnership will develop the new maize varieties, incorporating the best drought-tolerance technologies available internationally. CIMMYT will provide conventionally developed drought tolerant high-yielding maize varieties that are adapted to African conditions and expertise in conventional breeding and testing for drought tolerance. Monsanto will provide proprietary germplasm, advanced breeding tools and expertise. Additionally, Monsanto and BASF will provide drought-tolerance transgenes that they have developed through their collaboration. These contributions will be provided without royalty. The national agricultural research systems, farmers' groups, and seed companies participating in the project will contribute their expertise in breeding, regulatory issues and will be responsible for country-specific implementation including project governance, testing, germplasm evaluation, seed production and distribution.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded an independent program at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health (University of Toronto) to assess and monitor social, cultural, ethical and commercial issues related to the WEMA Project. The independent organization will conduct annual audits of WEMA and serve as an additional communication channel for stakeholders.
According to eminent scientist Professor Calestous Juma, who is the Director of the Science, Technology and Globalisation Project at Harvard University, the WEMA project is a powerful signal of the relevance of biotechnology to African agriculture.
The collaboration between CIMMYT and national agricultural research systems has already yielded excellent gains in drought tolerance through conventional breeding. The partners in the WEMA project expect the combination of advanced breeding and biotechnology to bring even greater gains. The partners estimate that the maize products developed over the next 10 years could increase yields by 20 to 35 percent under moderate drought, compared to current varieties. This increase would translate into about two million additional tons of food during drought years in the participating countries, meaning 14 to 21 million people would have more to eat and sell.
The first conventional varieties developed by WEMA could be available after six to seven years of research and development. The transgenic drought-tolerant maize hybrids will be available in about ten years.
Risk of crop failure from drought is one of the primary reasons why small-scale farmers in Africa do not adopt improved farming practices. A more reliable harvest could give farmers the confidence to improve their techniques. Good soil health, improved training and support, pest and disease management, and access to markets to sell their surplus are all necessary for small-scale farmers to boost their yields and incomes. To date, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $660 million as part of a broad agricultural development strategy that includes efforts in all of these areas so small-scale farmers could have access to the tools and opportunities they need to build better lives.
Mexico approves rules to begin planting GM corn
- Mica Rosenberg, Reuters via Forbes, Mar. 19, 2008
MEXICO CITY - Mexico, widely thought to be the birthplace of corn, said Wednesday it will begin allowing experimental planting of genetically modified crops, despite resistance from some farmers who question their safety.
The regulations published in the official gazette are the last step needed to implement a law passed by Mexico's Congress in December 2004 that authorizes controlled GMO plantings.
Supporters of GMO foods, whose DNA is altered to be resistant to pests, say they are a way to boost world food supplies. But farmers in Mexico's rural south, where corn has been grown for thousands of years, worry GM corn will cross-pollinate with native species and alter their genetic content.
Under the new rules, the farmers who want to plant GMO crops must register with the agriculture ministry and environmental authorities to request a permit.
GMO corn seeds will not be allowed into certain parts of the country that are determined to be "centers of origin" for genetically unique corn strains found only in Mexico.
Bio-tech food producer Monsanto Co (nyse: MON - news - people ) welcomed the decision in a statement, although the company noted that "the passage of these rules does not mean that permission will automatically be granted" to plant GMO crops.
Some farmers decried the decision.
"This is a step in the government's intention to bow to pressure from Monsanto to allow the contamination of Mexico's native corn," said Victor Suarez, who leads a group of small farmers opposing GMO crops.
Corn was first planted in Mexico as some 9,000 years ago and the country is now home to more than 10,000 varieties. The grain was adopted by Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s and eventually spread to the rest of the world.
On Jan 1 Mexico, the United States and Canada lifted all corn tariffs under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico now imports between 8 million and 9 million tonnes of U.S. yellow corn a year, close to 35 percent of local consumption.
More than 70 percent of U.S. corn is genetically modified.
With U.S. corn prices hitting record highs near $6 a bushel on increased demand for corn-based ethanol, corn farmers in the north say GMOs will help Mexicans cut down on expensive U.S. imports by producing more at home.
French farmers lose bid to overturn GM corn ban
- Agence France Presse, Mar. 19, 2008
PARIS - A group of French farmers on Wednesday lost a bid to overturn a government ban on a strain of genetically-modified corn, a month after it came into force.
France's highest administrative body, the state council, rejected the challenge from nine plaintiffs including a maize producers' association backed by the US agribusiness giant Monsanto, which produces the strain.
"The judge has rejected the complaint," said a spokeswoman for the state council. "There are no serious doubts as to the legality of the decisions" to ban the use of MON810 strain of corn, the only GM crop grown in France.
The French government in February officially banned the GM crop after a watchdog authority said it had "serious doubts" about the product in a report that has been controversial even among the scientists who put it together.*
France's Provisional High Authority on GM Organisms pointed to what it described as "a certain number of new scientific facts relating to a negative impact on flora and fauna".
In its ruling, the state council said the government was right to resort to the ban as a precautionary measure, given concerns about the possible public health effects.
Reacting to the decision, a Monsanto spokesman said he was disappointed but expressed hope that the company's arguments will prevail when the state council issues a final ruling in the case at a later date.
France invoked a European Union safeguard clause to bar the maize that gives an EU member state authority to ban a GM crop provided it has scientific evidence to back this decision.
France this month proposed replacing the EU's system for authorising GM crops with tougher standards which take into account a wide range of environmental and safety factors.
Last year, 22,000 hectares (55,000 acres) were sown with the product -- less than one percent of the sown acreage for corn in France.
* Guest ed. note: Claiming the scientific report was "controversial even among the scientists who put it together" is an understatement. The scientists resigned in protest. See the story below.
GM's stumbling block is EU politicians
- John Parry, Farmers Guardian, Mar. 21, 2008
THE Council of Ministers of the EU is coming under increasing pressure to release the log jam of GM crop varieties currently banned from being grown in or imported into the EU for political reasons despite the overwhelming scientific opinion they are both safe and beneficial.
Only one GM crop is approved for growing in the EU - the Bt maize MON810, which reduces the need for insecticides by being resistant to corn borer. Last year MON810 hybrids were grown on 110,000ha (a 77 per cent increase on 2006), mainly in Spain and the south of France.
But even this established GM crop received a setback in February when the French Minister of Agriculture activated a safeguard clause to justify a politically-motivated presidential decree suspending the growing of the crop in France this year.
The ban is based on 'new scientific evidence' on the effect of the variety on the environment and human health. This prompted the head of France's Biomolecular Genetics Commission, which had trialled the Bt maize and declared it safe for cultivation, to resign in protest.
And last week Europe's largest seed co-operative Limagrain announced it had moved its research tests into GM crops to the US due to the French government's hostility.
The ban has also provoked a furious National Federation of Farm Unions and the General Association of Maize Growers to challenge its legality with an appeal to France's supreme court for administrative justice, the Council of State.
The Council's decision on the appeal is expected next week, but even if successful it is unlikely that the ban will be lifted in time for French farmers to sow the crop this spring.
EuropaBio (the European association of GM crop breeders) calculates that the ban will result in more fuel being used, more CO2 released, 8,800 litres more insecticide applied and 25,000t less maize produced - resulting in a loss of €1.5million.
There are nine GM varieties approved by the EU for import and processing, not for cultivation in the EU. Grown mainly in the US and Argentina, they comprise four herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant maizes (from Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta), two herbicide-tolerant maizes (from Bayer and Monsanto), one insect-resistant maize (Monsanto), a herbicide-tolerant soya bean (Monsanto), and a herbicide-tolerant sugar beet (Monsanto).
Currently there are a further 18 GM crops awaiting approval for cultivation in the EU (nothing has been approved since MON810 was 10 years ago) and nearly 50 (mainly maize and soya) awaiting clearance for importing (mainly from the Americas) for use in food and animal feed.
They are stuck in various stages of a complex procedure involving a lengthy trials period followed by an initial submission to the EC that passes it on to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for its expert opinion, which is eventually forwarded to the EC Environment Directorate's regulatory committee and then the Council of Agriculture Ministers.
A qualified majority is required in the latter stages for approval to be granted. To date no GM crop has achieved this, so each application goes back to the Commission for further consideration.
In January the Council of Agriculture Ministers failed to reach a qualified majority to allow the import and processing of four GM maize varieties and the import, processing and growing of BASF's modified starch GM potato, Amflora - despite each having been assessed as safe by EFSA.
The Commission has now assumed the responsibility of finalising the decision-making process according to EU law and is expected to approve the five products more than three years after the initial applications.
Hawaii: Lawmakers mulling moratorium on genetically engineered taro
- Sudhin Thanawala, MSNBC, Mar. 20, 2008
HONOLULU - State lawmakers considering a 10-year moratorium on genetically engineering taro heard arguments from both sides of the emotionally charged issue Wednesday.
Supporters of the moratorium say the taro plant, which is used to make the starchy food poi, is a vital part of Hawaiian culture and should be kept pure, not genetically altered.
"(Taro) is in our beliefs and our culture," Walter Ritte, 63, told the House Agriculture Committee. "It is in us."
Supporters held signs that read, "No GMO taro" and "Save the taro," and carried taro plants as they spoke.
Hanohano Naehu, 31, a taro farmer on Molokai, said biotechnology companies were looking to profit from genetically modified taro.
"This is about greed," he said.
But opponents of the moratorium say Hawaii's taro is in danger from insects and diseases, and genetic modification could produce taro capable of withstanding these threats.
Previous research has involved introducing disease-resistant genes from other plants into the native taro.
"It would be foolish to throw away any potential tool that could help to sustain taro production on Hawaii," said Susan Miyasaka, an agronomist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The bill lawmakers are considering would ban taro genetics research at the university and other institutions.
Miyasaka said disease has contributed to a decline in the number of Hawaiian varieties of taro as well as its yield per acre.
Alan Takemoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said lawmakers should reject the moratorium but find a way to protect Hawaiian varieties with cultural significance.
"We are unable to support (the moratorium) because it puts a restraint on research and technology that could benefit our farmers," he said.
Other opponents say the moratorium would create the perception that Hawaii was against scientific research and technology, which could keep businesses away and hurt the state's economy.
The House Agriculture Committee heard hours of testimony Wednesday. It is expected to vote on the measure at a later date.
Guest ed. note: Taro is not native to Hawaii. If an attempt were made to introduce it to Hawaii today, without government permission, it would be subject to criminal penalties regarding the import and release of potentially invasive alien plant species. See, "Taro Cultivation in Asia and the Pacific", Inno Onwueme, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, May 1999, http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/ac450e/ac450e04.htm and "Invasive Species: Federal Laws and Regulations", http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/laws/execorder.shtml See also generally, "Hawaii's Most Invasive Horticultural Plants: An Introduction", http://www.state.hi.us/dlnr/dofaw/hortweeds/
Small helpers in the genome coordinate defence strategies in plants
- PhysOrg.com, Mar. 20, 2008
Not only are ribonucleic acids (RNA) active as transmitters of genetic information between DNA and proteins, but they also have an impact on gene expression in the form of small segments, 18-26 nucleotides long. These nucleic acids, called small RNAs (smRNAS), regulate developmental processes in animals and plants. Scientists in Prof. Ian Baldwin's group at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena have now found that smRNAs are also involved in plant defences against herbivores. After sequencing the whole smRNA vocabulary in tobacco plants, they found about 110,000 "words" consisting of RNAs, each with a length of 15 to 30 letters.
Using this "dictionary," they showed in subsequent experiments that the smRNA transcriptome and therefore the "word choice" changed after insect attack; as a result, certain defence genes were regulated differently. One of the main players is the enzyme RdR1, an RNA polymerase that is involved in the production of smRNAs. In a second step of the analysis, groups of specific smRNAs regulate the hormonal balance of the attacked plants; in other words, changing hormones regulate the defence.
Small RNAs (smRNAs) play different roles in organisms. Their role in defending plants against viruses is particularly important. RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRs) are responsible for the formation of some small RNA segments in cells. Genes that encode these kinds of enzymes have already been identified in several plant species. The regulation of genes based on smRNA is called "RNA interference".
Shree Pandey and Ian Baldwin asked whether RNA interference played a role in plant defense against herbivores. To investigate this, they cloned RdRs from wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata). They discovered that after only one hour one of the three RdR-coding genes they had found, RdR1, was ten times more active than usual in the plants that had been induced with the spit of insect larvae. Genetically modified plants in which the expression of RdR1 had been deactivated were nearly defenceless against herbivore attack.
It was remarkable that these plants were strongly attacked by their natural enemies, in particular Manduca sexta and Tupiocoris notatus. This means that RdR1 plays a crucial role in plant defence against insect herbivores. The researchers' next job was to find the RdR1 products, namely certain smRNAs, in the attacked and unattacked plants, identify their sequences, and look at how these small RNAs influence the plant defence.
The scientists sequenced a total of 110,122 different smRNAs, which they had isolated from attacked and unattacked plants. Comparing smRNAs in attacked and "healthy" plants, they found that 43% of the smRNAs found in the herbivore-attacked plants were not present in healthy plants. 1,224 smRNAs were detected in both plant groups, but in different amounts: some were more present, others less so in induced plants. The emergence of many novel smRNAs after herbivory correlates directly with the increase of RdR1 gene expression in attacked plants, an increase that was about ten times higher than usual, demonstrating that RdR polymerases are involved in the production of smRNAs.
A bioinformatics analysis of the smRNA sequences showed that some of these "words" directly influenced the expression of those genes that regulate enzymes involved in the metabolism of plant hormones, especially jasmonate. Jasmonate is a signalling compound that regulates plant defence against insect herbivores. When the RdR1 gene is switched off in transgenic plants, jasmonate metabolism genes are down-regulated. This is easily observed because unlike other plants, transformed plants are heavily attacked by insects.
"We assume that the defenceless phenotype of RdR1-silenced plants results from RNA interference in the signal transduction pathways that activate genes involved in plant defence, as previously described in humans" says Ian Baldwin, director at the Max Planck Institute. Biologists have recently found that double-stranded RNAs, precursor molecules for smRNAs, can switch on a certain gene after injection into human cells - a rather unusual effect, because up to now many smRNAs had been identified as "gene inactivators". Baldwin continues: "but there are alternative mechanisms. We also want to consider the possibility that smRNAs produced by tobacco after insect herbivory function as defences when they are ingested by attackers. Recently it has been shown that when insect larvae ingest double-stranded RNA produced by the plants that target genes in the insect, these insect genes are silenced. In this way, the smRNAs could function post-ingestively as direct defenses that target digestion or detoxifications systems in the insect".
Citation: Shree P. Pandey, Priyanka Shahi, Klaus Gase, Ian T. Baldwin, Herbivory-induced changes in the small-RNA transcriptome and phytohormone signaling in Nicotiana attenuata, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, online first, March 14th, 2008
Gene 'knockout' floors tobacco carcinogen
- North Carolina State University (press release) via EurekAlert, Mar. 18, 2008
In large-scale field trials, scientists from North Carolina State University have shown that silencing a specific gene in burley tobacco plants significantly reduces harmful carcinogens in cured tobacco leaves.
The finding could lead to tobacco products - especially smokeless products - with reduced amounts of cancer-causing agents.
NC State's Dr. Ralph Dewey, professor of crop science, and Dr. Ramsey Lewis, assistant professor of crop science, teamed with colleagues from the University of Kentucky to knock out a gene known to turn nicotine into nornicotine. Nornicotine is a precursor to the carcinogen N-nitrosonornicotine (NNN). Varying percentages of nicotine are turned into nornicotine while the plant ages; nornicotine converts to NNN as the tobacco is cured, processed and stored.
The field tests in Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina compared cured burley tobacco plants with the troublesome gene silenced and "control" plant lines with normal levels of gene expression. The researchers found a six-fold decrease in carcinogenic NNN in the genetically modified tobacco plants, as well as a 50 percent overall reduction in the class of harmful compounds called TSNAs, or tobacco-specific nitrosamines. TSNAs are reported to be among the most important tobacco-related compounds implicated in various cancers in laboratory experiments, Lewis said.
The research results were published online in Plant Biotechnology Journal.
Lewis and Dewey stress that the best way for people to avoid the risks associated with tobacco use is to avoid using tobacco products. But their findings show that targeted gene silencing can work as well in the field as it does on the lab bench.
"Creating a tobacco plant with fewer or no harmful compounds may also help with tobacco plants that are being used to create pharmaceuticals or other high-value products," Dewey said.
To get initial lines of plants with the troublesome gene silenced, the NC State researchers used a technique called RNA interference in which genetic engineering was used to introduce a gene that inhibits the demethylase gene function into the tobacco plant.
Dewey and Lewis have since developed tobacco lines with the same effect without using genetic engineering. They randomly inserted chemical changes, or mutations, into the tobacco genome of burley tobacco plants. They then searched for plants in which the nicotine demethylase gene was permanently impaired. The researchers are currently working to transfer this mutation to widely used tobacco varieties.
Dewey and Lewis add that nothing else in the plant changed - growth or resistance to insects or disease, for example - after they knocked out this specific gene.
While Lewis believes that varieties of burley tobacco with a silenced demethylase gene will exist within the next few years, the NC State researchers say burley tobacco has a number of other targets for their gene silencing method.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel*at*wildblue.net