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May 9, 2009


Crops That Need Less Water; Lucky Spud; Transforming Human Health; Be Not Afraid, Use Genetics to Feed the Hungry


* Plant Genetics Could Yield Crops That Need Less Water
* International team finds key gene that allows plants to survive drought
* Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods - A Scientist's Analysis of the Issues
* The Curious Man Lucky Enough to Create ‘the Lucky Spud’
* Food and Agricultural Research: Innovation to Transform Human Health
* Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change
* Gates Foundation Grants for Rutgers Scientists
* Ecological Impact of Genetically Modified Organisms
* Priorities for Change
* Be Not Afraid, Use Genetics to Feed the World's Hungry - Jack Kemp '99


Plant Genetics Could Yield Crops That Need Less Water

- Michael Gardner San Diego Union Tribune, May 1, 2009

'Protein molecule may hold key, researchers say'

By focusing on a plant's natural defense mechanisms, University of California researchers believe they have cracked an elusive genetic secret – a discovery that someday could help farmers produce more food with less water.

Their prize is a protein molecule that relays signals to cells that help plants cope with environmental stress, such as drought. “It has indeed been a holy grail,” said Julian Schroeder, a biologist at UC San Diego who was part of the research team.

Lead researcher Sean Cutler, a UC Riverside assistant professor of plant cell biology, said he was drawn to the work by the global implications of learning how to help plants thrive even in arid soil. Cutler said the United Nations has warned that water shortages are escalating a world food crisis. Millions go hungry or, worse yet, are starving to death. “Water is one of the 21st century's major challenges,” Cutler said.

It's too soon to gauge the economic and social significance of the breakthrough, or whether the results can easily and cost-effectively transfer from the laboratory to the field. But the researchers are optimistic. “You can't convert a corn plant into a cactus overnight. But we know we can get incremental improvements,” Schroeder said. “There's a lot of hope in this.”

The findings, published yesterday in the online journal Science Express, were developed in cooperation with researchers in Santa Barbara, Wisconsin, Canada and Spain. The UC Riverside team isolated what's called the plant's “receptor,” which has eluded researchers across the globe for more than two decades. “The receptor has been the missing piece of the puzzle,” Cutler said.

A receptor works in conjunction with the important hormone abscisic acid. This hormone turns on tolerance mechanisms that react to environmental stress, such as preventing cells from dying of dehydration. It also signals roots when to grow deeper to search for moist soil.

Success could clear a path for private industry to develop synthetic chemicals that can be sprayed on mostly food crops, such as corn, soybeans and rice. Also, the research has the potential of providing companies the option of using genetics to create a new generation of drought-tolerant, cultivated plants. “As far as we know, by using this pathway, it should be possible to do this in any plant,” Cutler said.

The results have attracted interest from the international agbiotech and agrichemistry industries, both for their global and California-specific promise. “The discovery from Schroeder and Cutler may open new routes for breeding new crop, fruit and vegetable varieties which can be grown in dry areas, (such) as California,” Michael Metzlaff, senior scientist for Bayer BioScience based in Belgium, said via e-mail.

“This would open novel routes in crop breeding and commercial agriculture. . . . The amount of water needed for irrigation could be cut down without loss of harvests. This would mean a substantial cost saving for farmers and the whole of California.”

But not for some time. Metzlaff said the agbiotech industry follows stringent testing requirements in the laboratory and the field, coupled with regulatory compliance. As a result, introductions of new seed for stress-tolerant crops generally will take seven to 12 years to reach the market.

The UC research teams used Arabidopsis, a small, flowering plant with unique traits, making it a valuable tool in understanding the molecular biology of plants. “It's like the lab rat of the plant world,” Cutler said.

International team finds key gene that allows plants to survive drought

A team of scientists from Canada, Spain and the United States has identified a key gene that allows plants to defend themselves against environmental stresses like drought, freezing and heat.

"Plants have stress hormones that they produce naturally and that signal adverse conditions and help them adapt," says team member Peter McCourt, a professor of cell and systems biology at the University of Toronto. "If we can control these hormones we should be able to protect crops from adverse environmental conditions which is very important in this day and age of global climate change."

The research team, led by Sean Cutler of the University of California, Riverside, has identified the receptor of the key hormone in stress protection called abscisic acid (ABA). Under stress, plants increase their ABA levels, which help them survive a drought through a process not fully understood. The area of ABA receptors has been a highly controversial topic in the field of plant biology that has involved retractions of scientific papers as well as the publication of papers of questionable significance. A receptor is a protein molecule in a cell to which mobile signaling molecules may attach. Usually at the top of a signaling pathway, the receptor functions like a boss relaying orders to the team below that then executes particular decisions in the cell. "Scientists have been trying to solve the ABA receptor problem for more than 20 years, and claims for ABA receptors are not easily received by the scientific community," says Cutler.

This team used a new approach called chemical genomics to identifying a synthetic chemical, designated pyrabactin, which specifically activates an ABA receptor in the model laboratory plant Arabidopsis. With pyrabactin in hand it was now possible to directly identify the ABA receptor. "This approach not only found a gene that had been long sought by the plant science research community but also showed that chemical genomics can identify new chemicals like pyrabactin that may have profound impacts on the way we farm in both the developing and developed world," says McCourt.

The study results will appear April 30 in Science Express and in the May 22 issue of Science magazine. Lead author Sean Cutler is a former University of Toronto scientist who is now an assistant professor of plant cell biology in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside. In addition to the University of Toronto and the University of California, Riverside, team members were from University of California, San Diego, Universidad Politecnica, Spain, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of California, Santa Barbara; and the Medical College of Wisconsin.


Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods - A Scientist's Analysis of the Issues (Part II).

- Lemaux, P. 2009. Annual Reviews of Plant Biology. 60: 551-559. (lemauxpg@nature.Berkeley.EDU)

Genetic engineering provides a means to introduce genes into plants via mechanisms that are different in some respects from classical breeding. A number of commercialized, genetically engineered (GE) varieties, most notably canola, cotton, maize and soybean, were created using this technology, and at present the traits introduced are herbicide and/or pest tolerance.

In 2007 these GE crops were planted in developed and developing countries on more than 280 million acres (113 million hectares) worldwide, representing nearly 10% of rainfed cropland. Although the United States leads the world in acres planted with GE crops, the majority of this planting is on large acreage farms. In developing countries, adopters are mostly small and resource-poor farmers. For farmers and many consumers worldwide, planting and eating GE crops and products made from them are acceptable and even welcomed; for others GE crops raise food and environmental safety questions, as well as economic and social issues.

In Part I of this review, some general and food issues related to GE crops and foods were discussed. In Part II, issues related to certain environmental and socioeconomic aspects of GE crops and foods are addressed, with responses linked to the scientific literature.


The Curious Man Lucky Enough to Create ‘the Lucky Spud’

- Janet MaslIN, NY Times, May 3, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/04/books/04masl.html?_r=1

There is a particular type of potato at the heart of Jane S. Smith's book about Luther Burbank, a man who described himself as an "evoluter of new plants." Ms. Smith nicknames that potato "the lucky spud." That turn of phrase is one of many reasons to appreciate "The Garden of Invention," her colorful, far-reaching book about the genetic, agricultural, economic and legal issues raised by Burbank's life and legend.

Review"THE GARDEN OF INVENTION: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants By Jane S. Smith, 354 pages. The Penguin Press. $25.95."

"The road from the 19th century to the 21st global market twists and turns, of course," she writes, "but a good part of it still passes through Luther Burbank's garden." Ms. Smith offers a thoughtful and often quirkily entertaining expansion on that idea.

The lucky spud is the russet Burbank, honored as "the classic American potato" by the United Nations in 2008 ("the International Year of the Potato"). At 22, in 1871, Burbank bought a plot of land and began cultivating vegetables. This particular type of russet potato was created by his Darwin-inspired experiments in propagation. It would become hugely popular. How popular? So popular that decades later McDonald's would insist on its use for the making of French fries.

Then, in 1995, the Monsanto Corporation would genetically modify the russet Burbank so that the potato could produce its own pesticide to repel the Colorado potato beetle. So how lucky a spud is it, really? In a biographical study that casts a long shadow (George Washington was president when Burbank's father was born; Jimmy Carter was president when his widow died), Ms. Smith considers that question from every angle.

A few oddities from Burbank's childhood
illustrate Ms. Smith's keen eye for detail. The soil in the region of Massachusetts where Burbank was raised must have been unusually fertile; it also produced John Chapman, a k a. Johnny Appleseed. Luther's mother, born Olive Burpee Ross, had a distant connection to the seed magnate W. Atlee Burpee and went to school with a girl named Mary Sawyer, who became known to every English-speaking child on the planet for being followed to school by her little lamb. As for "Little Lute," as the family called him, he was described as a morbid and morose child. And he bathed only in ice water. "These are slender threads from which to weave a tale of destiny," Ms. Smith writes. True, but it makes her own well-woven narrative that much more impressive.

The young man went West. After his first flush of success with the russet coup, he moved to California and began contemplating fruit. Under the spell of a wild mélange of influences, from transcendentalism to the nature-related theories of Alexander von Humboldt, Burbank lived in a world fascinated with agricultural booms and bubbles. Rare hens, merino sheep and mulberries were all subjects of 19th-century financial speculation.

He himself became obsessed with learning how to speed up experiments in plant breeding. He grew fast-sprouting almond seedlings and grafted fruit blossoms onto them, hoping to accelerate the growth of profitable orchards. He became known as a miracle worker, prompting Ms. Smith to write about the Burbank catalog, "New Creations in Fruits and Flowers," "Had the Garden of Eden itself been up for sale, the prospectus might have read something like this publication."

Burbank's methods were too complicated and cryptically recorded by him to be summarized here. ("Was '#=done' the same as '#=good'?" Ms. Smith wonders) The book explains its subject's scientific achievements, but it is also interested in bigger things. Among them: the evolution of Burbank's reputation as a popular hero, despite the fact that he fit no familiar category (he particularly frustrated academics trying to assess his work) and represented different things to different people. He was asked to testify by both warring camps in the Scopes "monkey trial." Henry Ford, smitten with Burbank's quaint persona and rustic surroundings, saw Burbank "as a link to a way of life Ford's own inventions had done so much to render obsolete."

"The Garden of Invention" follows its subject's growth from zealous inventor to satirists' delight ("he could teach a mango to do the tango") to hero of schoolchildren and figure of great renown. "Like many celebrities, Burbank sometimes found it hard to remember that the ability to command an audience does not necessarily mean you have anything important to say," Ms. Smith writes. She traces Burbank's reputation from its turbulent phase to the "simpler, saintlier narrative" that made him the subject of a drama called "The Man With Green Fingers," with Lionel Barrymore.

This book takes more than a passing interest in Burbank's income, insofar as it reflected his legal ability to protect his scientific advances. In his early professional years he grappled with the doctrine that held that while a gold mine was real property and a machine to extract gold was intellectual property, the actual mineral belonged to anyone who could find it; ditto with potatoes. Throughout his career, even as he developed friendships with tycoons like Ford and Thomas Edison, Burbank lived under constant financial pressure to keep creating new plant products. "His income was entirely dependent on his latest marvel," Ms. Smith writes.

The final part of this book describes the wrangling over Burbank's legacy after his death. Fittingly enough, this section is far less colorful than what preceded it. "The Garden of Invention" trails off into a list of places where studies of Burbank's work can be found. But even as she cites these, Ms. Smith recognizes the problem that they pose. Research material on Luther Burbank, she writes, "makes it seem as if the story of the garden somehow happens indoors."


Food and Agricultural Research: Innovation to Transform Human Health

Download full report at http://nabc.cals.cornell.edu

The role that food plays in human health is historic and broad. "Let your food be your remedy," attributed to Hippocrates 24 centuries ago, and "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" both encapsulate the food-health relationship.

A 21st-century plan to make food and agriculture a full partner in human health is proposed.It builds on multiple seminal contributions to key treatment advances from research in food and agriculture, and expands low-cost appr.oaches and quality-of-life benefits by mitigating diet-related diseases.

Delivery of healthcare is one of the most pressing social, economic, technical and political challenges
of our time. Of the expenditure on healthcare in the United States—$2.2 trillion, 16% of the gross
domestic product in 2007, and growing at more than twice the rate of inflation—diet-related chronic
diseases, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity and asthma, etc., account for about 75%. Emphasis
has been on therapeutic and surgical treatments after disease development; prevention through food and
diet has been under-utilized.

Research in food and agriculture has the potential to aid development of relatively low-cost, preventive
solutions to these pressing healthcare issues. This Food and Agricultural Research: Innovation to
Transform Human Health report provides justification and an action plan.

Research in food and agriculture, including nutrition and veterinary medicine, has an impressive record.
Multiple seminal, innovative and transforming contributions have been made to the discovery, description,
prevention and treatment of human disease including: • Vaccines • Models • Prion Diseases • Antibiotics • Production Systems • Small RNA Therapeutics • Biosourced Therapeutics • HIV • Biopharma Therapeutics

Developments in biology, including molecular genetics, will provide the knowledge, tools, and
opportunities to couple food and agriculture with new approaches to improving human health and
containing cost These mainly preventive approaches include: • Essential Nutrient • Toxin/Allergen Reduction • Nutrigenomics • Functional Foods • Altering Diet • Food Safety • Probiotics • Enhanced Flavor/Taste • Education/Communication

To expeditiously bring these benefits to human healthcare, we need a structure that integrates food and
agricultural research as a full partner in the national health-research mission. Current national funding for
research on food and agriculture must be expanded substantially to ensure timely delivery of preventive
benefits. This investment is justifi able in terms of the cost savings that will result from disease prevention.
A 10% cost reduction would save over $200 billion every year.

The new funding should be competitive and open to individuals and, in particular, to self-assembled
groups possessing necessary skills, e.g. scientists, sociologists, economists, communicators/educators,
marketers and regulators, from academe, government and industry. Examples of such structures exist.
Each program will target specific objectives to improve health.


Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change

- June 24-26, 2009; University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada


Focus on climate change, specifically how can agriculture adapt to what climate change may bring. Overview of the latest information on climate change and projections for the next decade and half-century with reviews of agriculture's contributions and responses to climate change; genetic approaches to adapting crops to climate change; land use and carbon sequestration, livestock adaptation and mitigation, and water-related issues; areas of policy, technology transfer and ethics.


Gates Foundation Grants for Rutgers Scientists


The Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program has awarded Eric Lam a $100,000 Phase I grant. The Foundation has committed $100 million to encourage scientists worldwide to expand the pipeline of ideas to fight our greatest health challenges.

With the prevalence in the developing world of virus-based diseases – such as hepatitis C; influenza (swine flu, avian flu and others); and HIV/AIDS – the creation and deployment of vaccines and novel RNA-based therapeutics

With viruses’ propensity to change and evade drugs, traditional therapies and preventive measures have proven ineffective in the long term. Responding to this challenge, Lam is concentrating on the use of combinatorial RNA interference (RNAi) to circumvent virus evasiveness. Its use is currently revolutionizing science and medicine alike.

Instead of focusing on a single target in a virus, combinatorial RNAi can deliver a “one, two combination punch.” Combinatorial RNAi molecules can inhibit a virus’s lifecycle by targeting multiple genes. Thus, if one gene mutates to evade a drug, an RNA molecule can go after one or more alternative genes essential to the virus’s replication
A more critical obstacle to these types of RNA therapeutics vaccination may be the economics of delivering it to the people who need it. Lam has engineered tomato lines into which designer genes have been introduced, encoding the desired RNAs targeting essential components of viruses.

Simply growing and eating the tomato may be a way of producing and delivering the RNA therapeutics to economically challenged or remote communities. The Gates Foundation grant will enable Lam to pursue this line of research further.


Ecological Impact of Genetically Modified Organisms


- May 14-16, 2009, Rostock, Germany.

Keynote speakers at the event will be: Emilio Rodriguez Cerezo of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, Behzad Ghareyazie of the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute in Iran, and Bryan Griffiths of the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority's (Teagasc's) Environment Research Centre.


Priorities for Change


"Various challenges to health and nutrition in the Third World population could be addressed by technologies deemed politically incorrect by influential extremist elements. The discrete and focused use of DDT to combat malaria and the implementation of genetically modified food regimens are examples of technologies that would save and better millions of lives if valid scientific arguments were allowed to prevail over hyperbole and political posturing." - John Long


Blast from the past by late senator and VP candidate Jack Kemp who passed away earlier this week


Be Not Afraid, Use Genetics to Feed the World's Hungry

- Jack Kemp, Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1999

'Agriculture: If we don't use science to farm more intelligently, we put people and ecosystems at risk. '
Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican nominee for vice president, is a distinguished fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The fast-waning 20th century has brought tremendous improvement in the human condition. People live longer, healthier lives than they did 100 years ago, largely because of stunning advances in medicine and agriculture.

These advances include products of genetic engineering. Former President Carter, whose Carter Center is doing outstanding work on agricultural production in the developing world, says that by increasing crop yields, genetic engineering reduces "the constant need to clear more land for growing food. Seeds designed to resist drought and pests are especially useful in tropical countries, where crop losses are often severe." Carter makes clear that the poorest, hungriest people of the world have the most to lose in the public relations assault on new bioengineered foods.

Science deserves most of the credit for advances in food production and nutrition, but so do education, the economics of wealth-creation, philanthropy and enlightened political leadership. Together these have put to rest the old Malthusian fear that population would outstrip our capacity to feed the world and that there was nothing we could do about it. There was something, and we did it: Today we feed 6 billion people much better than we fed 4 billion 20 years ago.

Yet this is no time to rest on our laurels. The 1996 U.N. World Food Summit reported that 800 million people are chronically undernourished, and the International Food Policy Research Institute projects that we will have to increase grain production 40% by 2020 just to keep up with population growth. We can do that; but to bring better nutrition and more food to the neediest people of the world, we have to use every resource at our disposal.

Superstition and sheer misunderstanding, however, are being used to browbeat the public--particularly in Europe, but increasingly in the U.S.--into opposing agricultural biotechnology, which the world needs to feed its growing population, improve nutrition and head off famine.

Despite numerous studies, there are no known hazards associated with bioengineered foods, which sound science shows to be as safe as--or safer than--the foods that have been on supermarket shelves for a generation. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to attack world hunger with better food crops and who now heads the Carter Center's effort to improve crop yields in Africa, points out that what some in Europe are calling genetically modified foods are just advances in conventional plant breeding, which has been used for years to increase yields, nutritional value and pest and disease resistance.

Some critical studies of genetically engineered crops merit further investigation, while others can't meet the basic standards of scientific peer review. Surely we can agree on sound science standards for bioengineered crops, as we should for all scientific breakthroughs with commercial applications.

The extremist opposition may be satisfied with nothing less than halting the agricultural advances altogether. Already, Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. has asked farmers planting its genetically engineered soybeans to segregate those crops, and Monsanto is apologizing for bringing more disease-resistant crops to market."Solid scientific evidence" has been all too lacking in this debate--a war of words and slogans, not ideas and initiatives. Let us suggest some facts that must not be forgotten: Without dramatic improvements in crop yields, people will starve; they will suffer disease and death from malnutrition. The world's wildlife, habitats, endangered species and entire ecosystems will be put at risk as we are forced to draw more agricultural land into production. Pest-resistance, which we now know can be bred precisely into plants, will be supplanted by wider use of chemical pesticides. The promise of improving the nutritional value of indigenous crops in the developing world may be lost for a generation.

Is this what the radicals want? Surely not. Those of us in affluent societies have the luxury of pondering such questions. In doing so, we have an obligation to give the benefit of the doubt to innovations in science and technology that will most aid those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Britain's Prince Charles, in his multi-pronged attack on the entire bioengineered foods industry, asserts that "where people are starving, lack of food is rarely the underlying cause." Let the prince eat cake. The people of the Sahel region, south of the Sahara, have no such luxury. It is our moral duty to help them with the most promising means available to us, and that must include applying advanced biotechnology to agricultural production.