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March 25, 2008


Gene Silencing Successful; China Co. Updates GM Pipeline; Innovate, Or Pay More


* Gene Silencing Successful In Rice
* Monsanto, Greenpeace clash in India
* Red flour beetle genome sequenced
* Origin Agritech Updates GM Pipeline
* Innovate, Or Pay More
* Symposium: Biosafety of GM Organisms


Highly Specific Gene Silencing Successful In Rice

- ScienceDaily, Mar. 21, 2008


Imagine you are a rice breeder and one day within a large field you discover a plant that has just the characteristics you have been looking for. You happily take your special plant to the laboratory where you find out that the spontaneous, beneficial event was due to inactivation of a single gene. This is a great observation; however, there are many different strains grown in different parts of the world, well adapted to the particular region they grow in. How can you now transfer the inactivated gene to other strains of rice?

Conventionally, you would have to go through years and years of breeding, until you have successfully transferred that single gene, without affecting all the other genes that are responsible for the target strains being so well adapted to their local environment. Would it not be great, if one could do this faster?

Using inactivated genes for rice breeding might sound far-fetched, but is not unusual. For example, the main change enabling the green revolution in rice resulted from loss of a gene that normally makes rice grow tall (and hence prone to toppling over if a plant makes many heavy rice grains). Thus, transferring inactivated genes is something rice breeders are indeed very much interested in.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, have now generated a tool that should greatly speed up this particular aspect of rice breeding: A team led by Norman Warthmann (MPI) successfully demonstrated highly specific gene silencing using so-called artificial miRNAs in rice (Oryza sativa).

MicroRNAs are 20-22 bp long RNA molecules. In animals as well as in plants they have important functions in regulating gene activity. In plants, they cause highly specific degradation of sequence-matched messenger RNAs, which encode enzymes, regulatory factors or other proteins. The end effect is that the corresponding gene is silenced. With artificial miRNAs (amiRNAs), this natural silencing pathway can be harnessed to inactivate genes of interest to the breeder, with unprecedented specificity.

Detlef Weigel's research group at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen had initially pioneered this technique in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. The plethora of potential applications in agriculture now motivated them to try the method in rice. One of the rice genes they targeted is called Eui1. When Eui1 is inactive, flowers tend to be fertilized by pollen from other plants, rather than being self-fertilized. While this trait, which essentially means male sterility, would be harmful to a wild rice plant, breeders use this genetic trick for hybrid seed production.

Originally identified as a spontaneous mutant in a japonica rice variety, the eui1 mutation was introduced into indica varieties by several years of breeding. With an artificial miRNA targeting the Eui1 messenger RNA, the researchers at the International Rice Research Institute obtained within weeks plants with the desired property in two different rice varieties, including the agronomically important indica variety IR64, the most commonly grown strain in South-East Asia. Similarly, the researchers also report successful silencing of two other genes, Pds and SPl11.

Besides allowing the quick transfer of reduced gene function between different varieties, artificial miRNAs also accelerate the initial identification of important genes and the discovery of functions of genes that have not been studied before. Potential applications in rice breeding are manifold and they don't stop at rice genes. By targeting pathogen-derived genes, for example, it should be possible to enhance virus and insect resistance. In addition, because they act dominantly, they are also perfectly suited for hybrid breeding.

MiRNAs have been found in all plant species examined so far. It should hence be possible to adapt the technique of gene silencing by artificial miRNAs to other crops and it may provide an important new avenue to enhance agronomic performance and nutritional value. Computer software to design the required oligonucleotide sequences and detailed protocols to produce amiRNAs are provided free of charge. Similarly, the artificial miRNA vector is provided free of charge to colleagues.

Journal reference: Warthmann N, Chen H, Ossowski S, Weigel D, Hervé P (2008) Highly Specific Gene Silencing by Artificial miRNAs in Rice. PLoS One 3(3): e1829. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.000182

Co-authors on the study include: Norman Warthmann, Stephan Ossowski, Detlef Weigel (Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany) and Hao Chen, Philippe Hervé (International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines).


Monsanto, Greenpeace clash over GM brinjal safety in India

The MNC's seed partner doesn't want details of its safety test in the public domain.

- Joe C Mathew, Business Standard (India), Mar. 22, 2008


A case filed in the Delhi High Court will decide the fate of exclusive data shared by companies with the government. Companies, especially those in the pharmaceutical and agri-chemicals businesses, don't want such data to be made public in order to protect their commercial interests.

Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco), the seed partner of multinational agro-biotech major Monsanto Corporation, has moved the Delhi High Court against a Central Information Commission order seeking details of the safety test data generated during clinical trials of its genetically modified (GM) brinjal, the first GM edible crop to be introduced in India.

Mahyco had submitted the data with the department of biotechnology for regulatory clearances. Divya Raghunandan, a representative of global environmental watchdog Greenpeace, had sought this information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The department turned down the plea on the grounds that the information sought by Greenpeace included "commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party".

Overruling the department, the Central Information Commission found merit in the Greenpeace argument that the data were not meant for commercial purposes and was sought to ascertain the risks that transgenic crops pose, particularly when open air field trials are being conducted in several places across the country.

Mahyco has gone to court to keep the data from being put out in the public domain. In its petition, it has also said that the Central Information Commission's order violates the obligations of India under the Trade- Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement of the World Trade Organisation.

The Delhi High Court passed an interim order in December 2007 staying the order till the next hearing of the case on April 23.

Some activists have thrown in their lot with Greenpeace. "The RTI Act clearly overrules any other rule that provides 'data protection' if the public authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information," RTI activist Prashant Bhushan said.

However, the department of biotechnology has said that the regulatory clearance for conducting trials of Mahyco's brinjal was given after proper scrutiny and they pose no public health hazards.

Greenpeace has obtained similar data on Monsanto's genetically modified insect resistant maize in Europe through a court order. The Monsanto data, when independently evaluated, had given rise to conclusions that were contradictory to Monsanto's observations.

Armed with the new data, the international NGO had launched a campaign, though not with much success, to see that the marketing approval given to the particular maize variety (MON 863) in Europe was withdrawn. Greenpeace is looking at the possibilities of a similar review of the data generated by Mahyco for its brinjal variety..


Biologists sequenced red flour beetle genome

- Kansas State University via PhysOrg.com, Mar. 23, 2008


Most of us hate to find the red flour beetle living happily in the flour sack in our pantries. But for several scientists at Kansas State University, and many others throughout the world, this pest of stored grain and grain products is the best organism for studying genetics.

The superior status of this beetle, Tribolium castaneum, as an experimental system is largely because of the work of two Kansas State University faculty, Susan Brown, professor of biology, and Rob Denell, university distinguished professor of biology. They worked in collaboration with Richard Beeman, research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Grain Marketing and Production Research Center in Manhattan.

This team won funding to get Tribolium's genome sequenced, making it one of the earliest insect genomes to be sequenced and the first pest insect to be studied in this way.

"We've been able to exploit Tribolium's ease of culture, short life cycle, and facile genetics to create an array of sophisticated methodologies," Denell said. "It now joins the fruit fly Drosophila as a premier insect genetic system, and even offers advantages in some areas of study."

The journal Nature will publish an article March 27 announcing the sequencing of the beetle's genetic material and summarizing the implications of this work.

"It's really exciting to see the burst of activity in Tribolium studies that has accompanied the sequencing project," Brown said. "This new information will greatly aid research on topics as diverse as insect pest management and the genetic control of development."

The genomic sequence, genetic maps and gene information are available from the National Center for Biotechnical Information and at http://www.beetlebase.org .


Origin Agritech Updates Genetically Modified Pipeline

Specific GM products have historically dominated the worldwide crop market

Introduced in US in 1998, glyphosate-resistant corn grew from 950,000 acres in 1998 to 2.3 million acres in 1999 to 41 million acres in 2007

- Origin Agritech Ltd. (press release), Mar. 24, 2008


BEIJING--Origin Agritech Limited, a leading technology-focused supplier of crop seeds and agri-biotech research in China, today updated its genetically modified pipeline to set forth the next generation of corn product into China.


World's first transgenic phytase corn is expected to be commercially launched in 2009, and is expected to be the first genetically modified corn product in China. Final approval (Phase 5) of product development is expected in late 2008. Currently, phytase corn remains the only biotechnology crop product in Phase 5 of development in China. Phytase is currently used as an additive essential for the growth and development of all animals, and limits the amount of phosphorus waste in the environment. Phytase, as an additive for animal feed, is mandatory in Europe, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan for environmental purposes. The worldwide phytase potential market size is US$500 million dollars, 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.

Glyphosate (Herbicide) Resistance

Glyphosate resistance is in the intermediate testing phase (Phase 2). Origin plans to apply for environmental release test for both (Phase 3) in mid 2008 for 5 selected lines. Origin Agritech retains the exclusive license rights to these specific herbicide resistant traits, and expects to be the first company to commercialize the herbicide resistant crops in China.

Worldwide, the largest segment of the transgenic crop market has been herbicide resistant crops. Specifically, glyphosate resistant crops have been widely accepted in cotton, corn, and canola in North America. Introduced in the US in 1998, the use of glyphosate resistant corn grew from 950,000 acres in 1998 to 2.3 million acres in 1999 to 41 million acres in 2007, or at a compounded annual growth rate of 51.9%, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The rapid historical adoption rate indicates farmers find this trait to be extremely valuable. The high level of adoption of these crops by farmers has also caused the reduction in value of the remaining herbicide market.

Since their introduction in 1996, over 75 million acres of genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant crops have been planted, making up 46% of the corn acres, 80% of soybean acres, and 70% of cotton acres in the US. These genetically engineered crops have been adopted by farmers because they are perceived to offer significant economic benefits over conventional crop and herbicide programs. The adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops has reduced costs for US farmers an estimated $1.2 billion. On the basis of recent adoption rates by growers around the world, it appears that glyphosate-resistant crops will continue to grow in number and in hectares planted.

Pest Resistance (Bt Corn)

Pest resistance (Bt Corn) is in the intermediate testing phase (Phase 2). Origin plans to apply for environmental release test for both (Phase 3) in late 2008 for 3 selected lines, and the company retains the exclusive license rights to these specific pest resistant (Bt corn) traits which, in all early trials, are the best performing traits for pest resistance throughout China.

Bt crops produce a protein toxic to specific insects used in areas with high levels of infestations of targeted pests. Bt cotton, which controls varieties of the budworm and bollworm, was planted on 59 percent of U.S. cotton acreage and 75 percent of the Chinese cotton acreage in 2007. Introduced in 1996 in the US, acreage of Bt corn has grown from 3.6 million acres in 1999 to 44 million acres in 2007, or at a compounded annual growth rate of 36.7%, according to the US Department of Agriculture. This Bt corn variety was planted on 49 percent of U.S. corn acreage in 2007.

Stacked Traits: Glyphosate Resistance & Pest Resistance (Bt)

Glyphosate resistance and pest resistance are in the intermediate testing phase (Phase 2). Origin plans to apply for environmental release test for both (Phase 3) in 2008. Worldwide, more than 250 million acres of biotech crops with herbicide resistant and pesticide resistant traits were planted in 22 countries in 2006, with the U.S. accounting for about 54 percent. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, and South Africa together accounting for nearly 43 percent, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

Nitrogen Efficiency & Drought Tolerance

Nitrogen efficiency and drought tolerance traits are in the laboratory testing phase (Phase 1). Again, Origin Agritech retains the exclusive license rights to these specific traits.

"Historically, these are the glyphosate and Bt traits that have dominated globally. We believe that our product pipeline is unparalled." Bailang Zhang, a director of Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), industry expert, and Origin Agritech board member commented. He continued, "Origin continues to be unique with its in-house biotechnology capabilities and GM product pipeline in China. Coupled with the fact that China continues to remain a marketplace for Chinese players, as only China-based firms are able to move past the initial round of testing, Origin Agritech, from a strategic standpoint, remain second to none."


Innovate, Or Pay More

Genetically modified crops are the best answer to food-price inflation, but Europe needs to relax its barriers first

- Phil Emmott, Business World (India), Mar. 11, 2008


Throughout your lifetime, whether you are 25, 40 or (like me) 50 years old, the price of food has been falling, bit by bit, year by year. This fall has been more striking in proportion to your income: less and less of our money is being spent on food. The only exception occurred in 1974-75 when the oil shock sent fertiliser prices rocketing, and supply shortages made food prices rocket, too. We are now in another exceptional period, one that is affecting consumers all over the world, is making the UN's food-aid programme costlier, and is making life much harder for central bankers concerned about controlling inflation. The difficult question is: how long will this exceptional period last?

In dollar terms, the food-price index published by The Economist has risen by more than 60 per cent in the past year. For anyone using currencies that have appreciated against the dollar during that time, such as the euro, the rupee and other Asian currencies, the rise in food prices has been up to 10-15 per cent less, but it has still been painful. In the past, sudden rises in food prices have been caused either by bad harvests or by a factor such as war, which breaks up the global supply system. Neither of those is relevant this time. The global crop of cereals last year was a record 1.66 billion tonnes, 5.5 per cent higher than in 2006. Instead, the rise in food prices has two main causes.

The first reason is that demand for grains in China and other emerging economies has risen rapidly as a wealthier population starts to eat more meat, which requires more grain as animal feed. But that should cause a gradual rise, not sudden. It is much more true of China than of India, where demand for grain has been slower to rise. The second reason explains the suddenness: oil prices at $100 a barrel, along with a flood of subsidies, especially in the US, have caused a rise in demand for maize to be converted into ethanol for use as a substitute for gasoline. The US expanded its ethanol subsidy programme in 2005, encouraging farmers to switch to maize from other crops. Other countries have also provided incentives, but none with such dramatic effect.

The first of those factors is likely to continue. High food prices may slow down the rise in demand for meat in China, but it will not reverse it unless China's economy hits major problems. The second factor depends on decisions about ethanol subsidies and on whether oil prices stay high, encouraging more motorists to switch to ethanol. In a presidential election year in the US, no candidate is going to promise to cut ethanol subsidies.

Instead, the duration of this period of rising food prices will depend on three sorts of action. The first is by farmers. In response to high prices, they are planting more crops than ever before. The weather will determine how successful those farmers are, but with plantings increasing in many countries, the overall supply of food is sure to rise.

The second action will take longer. Governments and private investors need to devote more money to building infrastructure in rural areas in the poorest countries. That is where the most potential for increasing the amount of land devoted to farming exists. But India shows the problem: its demand for meat is increasing, but its farmers are barely benefiting. The reason is that their crops cannot get to market because of poor roads, and their other produce perishes, thanks to a lack of refrigeration and secure warehousing. Political opposition to allowing modern retailing is one problem. Misdirected rural subsidies and a lack of public funds for infrastructure is another. Hence the tinkering by the Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, with rural incentives in his recent Budget.

The third action holds more potential, but depends on public opinion in Europe. In the past, farmers achieved bigger harvests by using new technology: better seeds, insecticides and fertiliser. A new technology, genetic engineering, could hugely increase crop yields using less insecticide and fertiliser. But public fears about food safety have had governments slow down development of genetically modified crops. As Europe is such a big food consumer, its qualms have discouraged other countries for fear their goods will be excluded from Europe.

The best response to food-price inflation would be for Europeans to relax those barriers to innovation in farming that are represented by genetic modification. This would require a new public debate and new efforts by scientists to persuade us that GM foods are safe, which would take time. But it could have a big effect over even just a five-year period. The choice is stark: pay higher prices, or let the innovation begin.


International Symposium on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms (ISBGMO)

Description: Held biennially by the International Society for Biosafety Research, the 10th ISBGMO will be the first in the Southern Hemisphere and will highlight past achievements and future directions in environmental biosafety research and risk assessment of GMOs.

Date: 16 - 21 November 2008

Location: Te Papa, Wellington, New Zealand

Contact: The Conference Company

+64 9 360 1240
email: isbgmo@tcc.co.nz

Registration: http://www.isbgmo.info/registration/

Abstract deadline: 30 April 2008

Publications: http://www.isbgmo.info/programme/

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