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June 14, 2010


Right to choose in Haiti; Boosting rice photosynthesis; Fertilizer-free corn?


Today in AgBioView From* AgBioWorld, June 14, 2010

* The Right to Choose - For Farmers in Haiti
* Fern gene for arsenic bioremediation
* Fungus speeds rice growth
* Fertilizer-free corn?
* Boosting rice photosynthesis generates optimism
* Making Sense of Statistics


The Right to Choose - For Farmers in Haiti
- Paul Driessen, Town Hall, June 12, 2010

The Monsanto Company is learning a valuable lesson in Haiti: no good deed goes unpunished at the hands of radical anti-corporate elements of Western society.

Like so many other concerned citizens, Monsanto responded to the tragic January 12 earthquake that further devastated this impoverished country. It worked for months with Haiti's Agricultural Ministry to select seeds best suited to local climates, needs and practices, and to handle the donation so as to support, rather than undermine, the country's agricultural and economic infrastructure.

>From Monsanto's extensive inventory, they jointly chose conventionally bred hybrid (not biotech / genetically modified / GM) varieties of field corn and seven vegetables: cabbage, carrots, eggplants, onions, tomatoes, spinach and melons. Instead of giving the seeds to farmers, the company worked with the USAID-funded WINNER program, to donate the seeds to stores owned and managed by Haitian farmer associations. The 475 tons of hybrid seeds will then be sold to many thousands of farmers at steep discounts, and all revenues will be reinvested in local agriculture.

Other companies and donors are providing fertilizers, insecticide and herbicides that will likewise be sold at a discount. The companies, Agricultural Ministry, farmers associations and other experts will also provide technical advice and assistance - much as the USDA's Cooperative Extension System does - on how, when and whether to use the various hybrids, fertilizers, and weed and insect-control chemicals.

The goal is simple. Help get the country and its farmers back on their feet, improve farming practices, crop yields and nutrition levels, and increase incomes and living standards.

The reaction of anti-corporate activists was instantaneous, intense, perverse, patronizing and hypocritical. Monsanto wants to turn Haiti back into "a slave colony," ranted Organic Consumers Association founder Ronnie Cummins. Hybrid and GM seeds will destroy our diversity, small-farmer agriculture and "what is left of our environment," raged Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Peasant Movement of Papaye.

Other self-anointed "peasant representatives" waded in. The seeds are genetically modified and "will exterminate our people." Farmers won't be able to afford the seeds or feed their children. The fertilizers are carcinogenic. Fungicides on the seeds are toxic poisons. "Seeds are the patrimony of humanity." We support "food and seed sovereignty." Traditional seeds and farming practices "provide stable employment" for the 70% of Haitians who are small farmers. And of course, "Down with Monsanto."

Various U.S. churches and foundations chimbed in. "Spontaneous" protests were organized in several Haitian and American cities. At one, hundreds of marchers wore identical shirts and hats, which even at a combined value of just $5 represented two weeks' income for average Haitian farmers: 40 cents a day. One wonders how many would have shown up without these inducements.

Indeed, this abysmal income underscores the terrible reality of life in this island nation, even before the earthquake, and the perversity of this campaign against "corporate control of the food system." Instead of "seed sovereignty," the activists are ensuring eco-imperialism and poverty sovereignty.

Forty years ago, Haiti was largely self-sufficient in food production and actually exported coffee, sugar and mangoes. Today, the country imports 80% of its rice and 97% of the 31 million eggs it consumes monthly. Two-thirds of Haiti's people are farmers (roughly equivalent to the United States just after the Civil War), but their crop yields are among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.

Few of Haiti's rural families have running water or electricity, and women spend hours a day cooking over open fires. Many contract serious lung diseases as a result, and life expectancy is twelve years lower than for people on the Dominican Republic side of the island.

Google satellite images reveal a lush green eastern DR two-thirds of Hispaniola - in stark contrast to the deforested, rutted, brown, impoverished Haitian side, from which enormous quantities of soil are washed into the ocean every year. Roads are so rutted and awful that Peace Corps workers report traveling four hours by truck to go 60 miles. Many rural people cannot afford to feed their children, leaving hundreds of kids in poor highland areas literally starving to death.

Hybrid seeds can help Haitians climb out of this morass. They're no silver bullet, but they are one of the cheapest, easiest and best investments a farmer can make. By simply planting different seeds and adding fertilizer, farmers can dramatically increase crop yields. A similar Monsanto donation of hybrid maize (corn) seeds and fertilizer to Malawi farmers in 2006 generated a 500% increase in yields and helped feed a million people for a year.

In the United States, organic and conventional farmers alike plant numerous hybrids. They cost more than traditional, open-pollinated seeds, but the payoff in yield, revenue, and uniformity of size, quality and ripening time makes the investment decision easy. Between 1933 and 2000, U.S. corn yields likewise expanded fivefold - thanks to hybrids, fertilizer, irrigation and innovative crop management practices - and today, hybrid or GM hybrid crops are planted on virtually every American field.

Some of the Haitian corn donation will be used to improve chicken farming and egg production. Most will likely be used in staples like sauce pois - corn mush topped with black or red beans combined with coconut milk, hot peppers, onions, garlic and oil. The thickness of the bean sauce reflects a family's income, and "wealthy" families often accompany the sauce with rice, instead of corn mush. The veggie seeds will add variety to family diets, and provide a source of income via sales at local markets.

The hybrids will also help Haiti adopt truly sustainable farming practices: higher crop yields, greater revenues and better nutrition for more people, at lower cost, from less land, using less water and fewer pesticides, requiring less time in fields, and enabling more farmers to specialize in other trades and send their children to school. In short, greater opportunity and prosperity for millions.

And yet, activists continue to spew forth invective, preposterous claims and disinformation - primarily through the Huffington Post and several other websites. Hybrid seeds don't regenerate, they assert; wrong - they do and can be replanted, though they will not pass all their best traits down to subsequent generations, which is one reason farmers typically buy new seeds. The seeds are poisonous, they fume; false - the seeds are treated with fungicides that are used safely all over the USA, Western Europe and Latin America, to keep seeds from being destroyed by fungus before they germinate.

(For additional information and discussions, see plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar's Biofortified website.)

Monsanto will not force farmers to plant hybrid seeds - or say they can't replant what they collect from previous harvests. Indeed, hybrids were widely just 30 years ago by Haitian farmers, who know what they are looking for in a crop, how to assess what they have planted and harvested, and whether they want to invest in specific seeds. They should be allowed to make their own decisions - just as others should be permitted to plant whatever traditional, heirloom or open-pollinated seeds they wish.

"We reject Monsanto seeds," say anti-hybrid activists. They might, and that's fine. But thousands of other Haitian farmers want to plant Monsanto seeds. Their right to choose must also be respected - not denied by intolerant protesters, who are largely funded and guided by well-fed First World campaigners.

After years of vicious assaults by agro and eco purists, Monsanto's corporate skin is probably thick enough to survive these lies and often highly personal attacks. Other companies, however, might lack the fortitude to provide their expertise and technology after future disasters, in the face of such attacks.

That is almost certainly an objective for many of these anti-technology, anti-corporate groups. Monsanto has no maize financial interests in Haiti and only a tiny vegetable operation, and I have no financial interest in Monsanto. But for the world's most destitute people, it would be a tragedy of epic proportions.


Fern's evolution gives arsenic tolerance that may clean toxic land
- Purdue University, Press Release, June 10, 2010

Isolating a gene that allows a type of fern to tolerate high levels of arsenic, Purdue University researchers hope to use the finding to create plants that can clean up soils and waters contaminated by the toxic metal.

The fern Pteris vittata can tolerate 100 to 1,000 times more arsenic than other plants. Jody Banks, a professor of botany and plant pathology, and David Salt, a professor of horticulture, uncovered what may have been an evolutionary genetic event that creates an arsenic pump of sorts in the fern.

"It actually sucks the arsenic out of the soil and puts it in the fronds," Banks said. "It's the only multi-cellular organism that can do this."

Without a genome sequenced for Pteris vittata, Banks and Salt used a method of gene identification called yeast functional complementation. They combined thousands of different Pteris vittata genes into thousands of yeast cells that were missing a gene that makes them tolerant to arsenic.

The yeast was exposed to arsenic, with most of it dying. The yeast strains that lived had picked up the genes from Pteris vittata that convey arsenic resistance.

To confirm that this was the correct gene, its function was knocked down and the plant was exposed to arsenic. Without the gene functioning properly, the plant could not tolerate arsenic.

"It tells us that this gene is necessary for the plant to function on arsenic," said Banks, whose findings were published in the early online version of the journal Plant Cell. "We looked for a similar gene in the plant Arabidopsis. We couldn't find it. It can't be found in any flowering plant."

Banks and Salt found that the protein encoded by this gene ends up in the membrane of the plant cell's vacuole. Salt said the protein acts as a pump, moving arsenic into the cell's equivalent of a trashcan.

"It stores it away from the cytoplasm so that it can't have an effect on the plant," Salt said.

Banks said understanding how the Pteris vittata functions with arsenic could lead to ways to clean up arsenic-contaminated land.

"Potentially you could take these genes and put them in any organism that could suck the arsenic out of the soil," Banks said.

Salt said rice plants could be modified with the gene to store arsenic in the roots of plants - instead of rice grains - in contaminated paddies.

Banks and Salt found another gene in Pteris vittata that looks almost exactly the same as the one that controls arsenic tolerance. When the fern was exposed to arsenic, the confirmed arsenic-tolerance gene increased its expression while the similar gene did not.

Salt said the gene that regulates arsenic tolerance could be a duplicate of the other that has changed slightly to give itself a new function.

"The fact that it has these two genes could be a sign of evolution," Salt said. "One of the thoughts of gene evolution is that one copy could continue to do what it has always done, while the duplicate can develop another function."

The plant might have evolved to accumulate arsenic, Banks and Salt theorized, as a defense against animals or insects eating them.

Banks hopes findings such as this will lead to more research emphasis on non-flowering plants. She said there are characteristics in plants such as Pteris vittata that cannot be found in other organisms.

The next step in their research is to put the arsenic-tolerance gene from Pteris vittata into Arabidopsis to see whether it gives the new plant the same characteristics.

The National Science Foundation funded the research.


Swiss researchers uncover microscopic fungus which speeds rice growth
- MercoPress, June 11, 2010

Researchers at a Swiss university said Thursday that they have uncovered a microscopic fungus that is able to increase the speed of rice growth by five times. In a study published by Switzerland's University of Lausanne, researchers claimed that the fungus mycorrhiza would not only cut the use of phosphate fertilizers, it was also "completely natural" or GM-free.

Rice is the most produced and consumed world grain Rice is the most produced and consumed world grain

Tinkering with a type of fungus that lives in association with plant roots, researchers found a way to increase the growth of rice by an impressive margin. The so-called mycorrhizal fungi are found in association with nearly all plants in nature, where they deliver essential nutrients - specifically phosphate - to plants in return for sugar.

The findings are nevertheless a surprise, according to researchers reporting online on June 10th in Current Biology, because there has been little evidence thus far to suggest that crop plants actually respond to the fungi.

"Global reserves of phosphate are critically low, and because the demand for phosphate goes hand in hand with human population expansion, it is predicted that there will be major shortages in the next few decades," said Ian Sanders of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

"Unfortunately, most of our important crop plants do not respond strongly, if at all, to inoculation with these fungi. This is especially so for rice, the most globally important food plant. There are no clear reports that rice benefits from inoculation with mycorrhizal fungi."

That is, until now. In fact, the researchers started with a strain of mycorrhizal fungus of the species Glomus intraradices that clearly didn't benefit rice. They then took advantage of the fungus's unusual genetics. A single fungal filament can contain genetically distinct nuclei. Those distinct nuclei can fuse together, mixing genes up in different combinations, and fungal spores can also end up with different complements of genes, the new research shows. As such, the supposedly clonal fungi maintain a degree of genetic variation that had been overlooked.

"It turns out we can very simply manipulate their genetics to produce fungi that induce up to a five-fold growth increase in this globally important food plant," Sanders said.

The genetic changes that the researchers produced in the fungi led to changes in the activity of important genes in the rice, they report. Those affected genes are known to be involved in establishing the mutually beneficial relationship between plant and fungus and in the transport of phosphate at the interface between fungus and plant.

Sanders emphasized that the genetic manipulation the researchers undertook didn't involve any insertion of new genes into the fungal genome. It rather relied on the same biological processes of genetic exchange and segregation that normally take place in the fungus. "What we have done with these fungi is not much different from what plant breeders, and farmers before them, have done to improve crops," he said. "The only difference is that the genetics of these fungi is a little bit more unusual, and no one thought it worth doing."

On a cautionary note, Sanders did emphasize that the plants they studied were grown in a greenhouse in Switzerland under conditions that only mimicked those found in the tropics. "This is clearly not at all the same environment as a rice plant growing in a real paddy field," he said. It remains to be seen whether the same growth benefits will apply in practice.

"However," Sanders said, "our study clearly shows that the potential is there to manipulate the genetics of the fungus to achieve greater crop yields."

It could be commercialised and used in large-scale farming in two to five years, said the researchers. The team uncovered the function of the super fungus after four years of experiments on twenty different samples of its spores.


Fertilizer-free corn?
- Dan Murphy, AgNetwork, June 9, 2010

Of course, synthetic biology is still a young discipline within molecular biology. In fact, if one were to measure its maturity in "science years"-like how we estimate the relative human age of a dog or cat-then synthetic biology would be a rowdy teen-ager: full of energy and promise, but a ways away from reaching its full potential.

That said, in slightly more than a decade of activity this exciting new science already promises to generate some potentially dramatic improvements in agricultural (and many other) systems. But to appreciate how today's synthetic biological research might impact tomorrow's food production, first we've got to wade through some pretty daunting science.

Here goes.

Circuit training

A simplified explanation of synthetic biology is that it involves engineering of gene networks that can control biological processes at the cellular level. If "basic" biotechnology utilizes the transplanting of a gene from one organism to another to introduce new functionality-such as soybeans that are resistant to a particular herbicide-then synthetic biology might be understood as an attempt to reprogram more complex biological activity through construction of gene expression networks.

What the heck are gene expression networks? you're probably asking. According to Kaustubh Bhalerao, an assistant professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois and one of the leading synthetic biology researchers, these networks operate as the biological equivalent of electronic control circuits. As he explained it in a recent Trends in Biotechnology article, "Synthetic biology attempts to construct artificial circuits that can control biological functions in potentially transformational ways."

Bhalerao is currently leading a multidisciplinary research team, partially funded by the National Science Foundation, that includes scientists from the University of California-San Francisco, Stanford University, the University of Cambridge and New Castle University. The team is working to build systems that enable bacteria to communicate with and control plant cells-which, by the way, is the basis of how legumes fix nitrogen.

More on that is a moment.

Already, scientists have used synthetic biology techniques to create a "toggle switch" that governs whether gene expression is turned on or off in response to a stimulus. The next phase-and where it begins to get interesting-is developing entire gene networks that could trigger more complex biological activity.

Like programming corn to fix nitrogen, for example.

The use of nitrogen fertilizer is essential for profitable corn growing, but its sustainability long-term is beginning to be questioned, and if nothing else, it represents a significant production cost. But is it really possible to "teach" corn to fix its own nitrogen, eliminating or at least reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer applications?

Bhalerao says yes.

"We now understand enough about how genes work and how proteins are produced that we can actually think about reprogramming how cells work," he explained.

Soybeans fix nitrogen by signaling certain bacteria to colonize in the plant's roots. Then, once the right biochemical environment has developed, the bacteria being fixing nitrogen that the plant can utilize. That's why soybeans are naturally high in nitrogen and a protein-rich food source.

"Why don't we teach corn how to do this?" he asked. "This would reduce the need for petroleum-based fertilizers, which has huge implications for sustainable agriculture."

As synthetic biological research forges ahead, one of the areas of greatest progress has been the creation of a biological repository for interchangeable gene circuits that can literally be assembled in modular fashion to build progressively more complex gene expression networks. Does that sound like the way electronic devices are built? It should, because it is.

"To compare [synthetic biology] with electronics, where it's drawing a lot of its ideas and terminology from, we cannot yet foresee what the Internet of this technology is going to look like," Bhalerao said. "We are still at the stage of developing the transistor."

For more information on synthetic biology and Prof. Bhalerao's research, log onto the Bhalerao Group website at <http://abe-bhaleraolab.age.uiuc.edu/>http://abe-bhaleraolab.age.uiuc.edu/

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator


Boosting rice yields generates optimism
- Southwest Farm Press, June 11, 2010

The goal is to increase by 50 percent the yield of rice, which about half of the world's population depends on as a staple.

Early research on improving photosynthesis in rice plants is giving investigators reason for optimism, Cambridge University plant scientist Julian Hibberd told the International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB) 12th World Congress.

Hibberd's work on the C4 Rice Project is searching for ways to genetically modify rice plants, which use C3 photosynthesis, to the more productive C4 form found in plants such as maize and sorghum. He is part of a project coordinated by the International Rice Research Institute and funded by an $11 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The goal is to increase by 50 percent the yield of rice, which about half of the world's population depends on as a staple. Because rice feeds more people than any other crop and yields have started to plateau worldwide, Hibberd said, increasing production is critical to food security,

"The challenge is absolutely huge, but we should be able to understand the mechanisms underlying C4 photosynthesis with enough time and money devoted to it," Hibberd told members of the Congress, attended by about 800 scientists, science policy leaders and others from more than 50 countries around the world.

Members of the C4 rice project have started to identify mutant lines of rice that show alterations in leaf structure that could help rice to be modified into a C4 plant.

"The C4 pathway is extremely complicated, so engineering it into a crop like rice is a massive challenge," Hibberd said. "But it has evolved many times independently, so that's one reason for optimism. We also know there are a large number of enzymes that are recruited in the C4 pathways, but they are all present in plants that use the C3 pathway."

Part of the difficulty of engineering C4 rice is understanding and controlling the interaction between changes in the rice leaf's structure, biochemistry and cell biology. The leaf structure is an area with the least amount of research and on which the C4 Rice Project is intended to have an impact.

"We have to manipulate all three," Hibberd said. "We are probably still at least 15 years away from seed production, but the fact that it has evolved many times alongside some promising initial results from the C4 rice project provide cause for optimism."

This presentation was one of 60 major presentations by invited speakers and more than 200 short talks. Presenters discussed biotechnology in terms of agriculture challenges as a result of climate change and global population growth. More information is available online at <http://www.iapb2010.org>www.iapb2010.org.


Making Sense of Statistics
- Sense About Science, April 29, 2010

Statisticians, journalists and scientists today launch Making Sense of Statistics, a guide that provides a few questions you can ask and outlines the pitfalls to look out for when weighing up claims that use statistics. Making Sense of Statistics is published by Sense About Science and Straight Statistics in collaboration with the Royal Statistical Society.

Alongside Making Sense of Statistics a short guide on Making Sense of Statistics in an Election is also released. With just a week to go until the polls the guide gives four points to keep in mind as you read the manifesto pledges, watch the final televised debate and decipher the campaign promises.

>From contributors:

Leonor Sierra, Science and Policy Manager, Sense About Science: "While statistics are sometimes hyped and sensationalized, they can also test and debunk arguments. Knowing the questions to ask and the pitfalls to avoid helps us to work out whether the figures in the headlines matter to our lives and to society, from health screening to the economy."

Nigel Hawkes, Director, Straight Statistics: "Statistics help to make sense of a confusing world. But the sheer number and variety of statistics also provide great opportunities for misrepresentation or selective quotation. Getting canny about these tricks should be part of everybody's armoury."

David Spiegelhalter,Winton Professor of Public Understanding of Risk, University of Cambridge: "We shouldn't just accept the numbers we're told as absolute truths, but ask where the evidence comes from, what it relates to, and even what we're not being told. Numbers can't tell us everything, but by understanding a bit about statistics, uncertainty and probability we can look critically at stories in the news."

Michael Blastland, writer and broadcaster: "Taking numbers for granted is naive - you become a sucker for spin. But treating them all as so many lies, turning away in cynicism, is to give up on every political, economic or social argument you follow, every public cause you love or hate. The middle way is the only way: to learn how numbers work."

Andrew Garratt, Press and Public Affairs Officer, Royal Statistical Society: "A great many of the decisions we make - or are made for us by government - are underpinned by statistics. Knowing more about how they work helps us to make better decisions and hold government accountable to the public."

Simon Briscoe, Statistics Editor, Financial Times: "The advent of widely available, good quality data is a new phenomenon. Its impact on the way we live will be just as great as the internet or mobile communications. If you don't 'get it' and know how to use it, your quality of life and understanding of the world around you will suffer. And it is fun to have the insights into our world that numbers offer."

Christina Pagel, senior research fellow, Clinical Operational Research Unit, UCL: "I think that decisions on how to use modern scientific advances, whether in health, cutting edge technology or the environment are so important that everyone in society should have a say. To do this, we all need to be informed and to understand how to interpret the scientific evidence presented so that we're not unfairly influenced by those presenting the data."

Shaun Treweek, senior lecturer at the School of Medicine, University of Dundee: "Numbers and statistics can help people to make informed decisions about what tablets to take, what food to eat, or what car to buy but they need to be handled with care because they can also be misleading. This booklet should make writing about, or reading about, statistics and numbers a little bit easier. That has to be a good thing."


*Compiled by Andrew Apel. Back issues archived at http://www.agbioworld.org