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May 24, 2010


Unnatural Selection; Synthetic hysteria; Earthworms are safe


Today in AgBioView
From* AgBioWorld, May 24, 2010

* Bt maize does not affect earthworms
* Synthetic life, or Synthetic hysteria?
* GE crops get clean bill of health
* Technology Preserves Biodiversity, Increases Food Production
* A Harvest for 9.2 Billion
* A Brief History of Unnatural Selection


Long-term study: Cultivation of Bt maize does not affect earthworms
- David Andow and Guenther Stotzky, GMO Safety, May 18, 2010

Earthworms are not affected by genetically modified Bt maize even after several years of cultivation. In a 4-year study, ecologists from the USA and Switzerland have investigated the effects of different Bt maize lines on the earthworm populations. For most of the four earthworm strains that were present in the test fields it was irrelevant whether Bt or conventional maize was growing on the trial area. To validate these results, however, the researchers suggest that the investigations should be continued using other earthworm strains.

Earthworms play an important role in maintaining soil fertility. They help to decompose plant remains in the soil and on the surface and to loosen the structure of the soil. With their study, scientists from the University of Minnesota, together with colleagues from the Universities of New York (USA) and Neuch√Ętel (Switzerland), wanted to obtain additional information on the possible effects of Bt-maize on earthworms.

Earthworms can take up Bt proteins through ingesting plant remains and from Bt protein-containing secretions of the maize roots. In the USA, Bt maize varieties are grown on 57% of the area under cultivation.

Up to now the results of nine laboratory studies and four field trials are available that predominantly show that these animals show no impairment through Bt maize cultivation. In two laboratory studies, however, slight negative effects on the earthworms were observed. The animals grew somewhat more slowly. The effect first occurred only after a test duration of about 200 days.

If this result were confirmed, it could lead in the long term to a reduction in the number of earthworms. Therefore, the American-Swiss research group wanted to monitor how several years of Bt maize cultivation affected the earthworm populations. The results have now been published in Soil Biology and Biochemistry.

In the field trials, three Bt maize varieties that contain the Bt toxins Cy1Ab and Cry3Bb1 were compared with non-genetically modified original lines. One variant of the Bt protein is directed against particular butterflies, and the other against the corn root borer , a destructive beetle. This protein is formed in comparatively high concentrations in the roots of the maize and from there enters the soil.

Within each of the 1600 m2 test areas, four types of earthworm were found, three strains of the genus Aporrectodea and the common earthworm (Lumbricus terretris).The scientists measured the biomass of the different developmental stages of the earthworms. No significantly significant differences were seen between the areas with Bt maize and those under conventional maize.

However, the researchers recommend further studies since, depending on the area in the USA, Europe or other areas, different types of earthworms could be present in the maize fields. Therefore, before cultivation, laboratory tests should be carried out to determine whether the strains found in that region could be in principle impaired by the Bt toxins.


Synthetic life? Synthetic hysteria more like
- Raymond Tallis, Times Online (UK), May 22, 2010

New cell advances are a long way from being genuinely artificial life forms - and nothing to be afraid of

Craig Venter, the flamboyant US molecular biologist and entrepreneur, has been at it again. Not content with first-equal position in the race to give a complete description of the human genome, he has now announced that his team have created the world's first synthetic life form. The editor of the journal Artificial Life has described this as "a defining moment in biology". Dr Venter himself has claimed that his success has changed his "view of the definition of life and of how life works".

Well, he would do, wouldn't he? Before we get too excited, we should note that he has not actually "created artificial life", as the headlines proclaim. He has synthesised DNA from basic chemicals; but lone DNA is not life. More, much more is needed. In this case, it was provided by an existing bacterium whose usual humble duty is to cause mastitis in goats. Into this the DNA was inserted. Yes, the resulting minute organism was new life but nearly all of that new life was taken off the shelf from nature.

The challenge of creating genuinely artificial life is much greater than that of getting new DNA to hitch a ride in existing cells. The enormous complexity of living cells - with their multitudes of interacting organelles, their exquisitely folded smart membranes and their mind-bogglingly complex signalling systems - makes the task of genuinely synthesising new living matter unimaginably difficult.

Indeed, one of the ironical consequences of the completion of the Human Genome Project was that it showed us how little the genetic code told us about living organisms, particularly complex ones like us. The increased emphasis over the past decade of disciplines - such as post-genomics, epigenetics, and integrative biology - that try to bridge the gulf between the genome and the organism is an indirect criticism of the hype that surrounded the decoding of human DNA.

Of course, Dr Venter's success is an impressive advance in cell biology. He has added to the techniques by which scientists can create genetically modified organisms and these have huge potential benefits. But we are a long way off making entirely synthetic life forms and even farther from creating those unhappy creatures of the literary imagination, half-man, half-chemical, stalking the Earth, causing havoc, demanding citizenship, and posing insoluble dilemmas for ethicists. Which is why the hype is so irritating: it has provoked predictable and boring howls from naysayers, already unhappy about some things science has achieved for us and who want, for reasons of their own, to put the frighteners on us all.

We are told that this kind of research goes against nature. Well, that cuts no ice with me. Nature is against us. If this seems disrespectful, recall that nature regards you as expendable, would prefer a 99 per cent infant mortality rate to get on with its business of natural selection more efficiently, and has no truck with most of the nonsense that fills our lives - with the sort of stuff that makes our lives longer, more comfortable and richer in ways that nature recks not. Even the greenest of us can manage only little arias of "organic living" before we retreat gratefully to "unnatural" human existence - wearing clothes, eating uncontaminated food, readings, books and, yes, worshipping nature. So please don't appeal to Mother Nature as an exemplar of benignity or as a guide to what we should or should not be doing.

The same applies to the "yuk" factor, often invoked as an unassailable argument against an advance. "My gut instinct tells me that there is something wrong, indeed offensive, about messing about with life forms." "Yuk" is no guide to what is right or will become acceptable. Plant and animal breeders have messed with life forms since time immemorial, which is one reason why I am not currently hungry. And there is something deeply yukky about many things that are of great benefit. I don't like the idea of wearing someone else's heart but I know what I would choose if I needed a transplant; and I am correspondingly proud to see my own body as "donor kebab" , a smorgasbord of benefactions, though the thought of it makes me very queasy indeed.

And then there is the usual argument about "playing God". This means, I suppose, arrogating to one's self powers that only a God (if He/She/It existed) could legitimately exercise. To judge by the track record of that accusation, it is not at all clear where the line should be drawn between playing God and doing one's utmost as a human being to understand and improve the world and the lot of those in it. As a member of the medical profession for many years, which was regularly accused of playing God, when I felt more cog-like than God-like, this is not a charge for which I feel much sympathy.

The God accusation is linked with the sense that there are clear limits to the extent to which we should "interfere with nature". It is expressed in the myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire, the great symbolic act by which human beings tried to take hold of their own destiny, ended in tears. At any rate, it emphasises how scientific and other advances often have unintended consequences. Sure thing. This is a condition of life. The calamitous consequences (as well as the benefactions) of the invention of the wheel are too numerous and too frightful to list. But I wouldn't be without wheeled life. We just have to be alert to, and take early action against, undesirable effects.

The best scientists are deeply aware of this. Meanwhile, let us have less hype from some scientists and a more intelligent debate from ethicists, religiously motivated commentators and journalists. That means leaving "nature", "yuk" and "God" out of the discussion.

Raymond Tallis was Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester. His latest book is Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence (Atlantic)


GE crops get clean bill of health
- Richard Cornett, Western Plant Health Association, Western Farm Press, May 21, 2010

An independent panel of scientists has determined that GE crops undeniably benefit farmers and the environment.

It's official - the sky-is-falling predictions of critics who feared consumers who eat genetically engineered foods would eventually grow warts on their big toes and extra thumbs as a result of ingesting these "Frankenfoods" have been banished to history's trash bin of irrelevancy.

That's because an independent panel of scientists has determined that GE crops undeniably benefit farmers and the environment. According to a report released in April by the National Research Council, GE crops lower production costs, reduce pesticide use and improve yields. And GE crops enhance the environment because they reduce soil erosion and improve water quality, the report says.

Of course, GE opponents would like to scream bloody murder that somehow the panel that performed this study is biased, self-serving and conflicted by special interests. But none of that will stick to the wall.

They targeted crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton that had been genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant or produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins that are lethal to the larvae of some insects.

Overall, the report was an affirmation of the experience farmers have had with genetically engineered crops since they went commercial in 1996. The research drilled down on the effect that plant technology has had on farmers, and that impact has been dramatic. The study's key conclusions:

+ Farmers who have adopted GE crops have experienced lower costs of production and higher yields, including in some areas where insect populations were hard to treat without such crops.

+ Increased worker safety and greater flexibility of farm management have resulted.

+ "The adoption of herbicide-resistant crops complements conservation tillage practices, which in turn reduces the adverse effects of tillage on soil and water quality," the scientists wrote.

+ "Insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops," they wrote, noting that insect resistance to the technology has been low.

+ For the three major genetically engineered crops - corn, soybeans and cotton - cross-breeding into wild or weedy relatives hasn't been a problem.

The conclusions of the review panel included a couple of important caveats: that GE crops are not a silver bullet. Such crops must be properly managed to avoid the development of herbicide-resistant insects. Just as the use of the same types of pesticides year after year will tend to develop resistance, so do cropping systems that rely on genetically engineered traits, the scientists said.

And then there is the danger of crossbreeding contamination. The panelists said that accidental crossbreeding with the non-genetically altered crops "remains a serious concern for farmers whose market access depends on adhering to strict non-GE presence" in their crops. "Resolving this issue will require the establishment of thresholds of the presence of GE material in non-GE crops, including organic crops that do not impose excessive costs on growers and the marketing system."

Overall, though, the panel gave genetically engineered crops a thumbs-up, with the positives far outweighing the negatives.

Will this latest and most comprehensive study by a group of renowned and respected scientific experts slake the thirst of activist groups in their quest to discredit GE crops? Fat chance.

Genetically engineered seeds remain under attack by activists and regulators in spite of the overwhelming evidence in support of GE seeds compiled by experts during the past several decades. In addition to the wholesale misrepresentation of GE accomplishments, activists' latest strategy has shifted to one of harassment.

The tactics of so-called green groups were spelled out earlier this year in an article on the Forbes.com Web site by respected scientist Dr. Henry Miller, a physician, molecular biologist and fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He also authored "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution."

In his January article titled "The Seeds of Irresponsible Activism," Miller cites lawsuits filed in federal courts by activists seeking a ban on the planting of herbicide-resistant alfalfa and genetically engineered sugar beets. If granted, they would effectively halt nearly half the nation's sugar production.

The lawsuits allege no actual damage, Miller notes, but claim regulators failed to adequately consider the possible effects of genetic cross-contamination between GE crops and traditional crops. These lawsuits are the latest example of hypocritical, anti-social opposition to important technology.

"The activists' strategy is reminiscent of the old courtroom dictum: When the facts are on your side, pound the facts; when the facts are against you, pound the table," Miller writes. "Because there is no scientific evidence to support allegations about negative effects of genetic engineering, they are pounding the table, resorting to scare tactics and specious assertions."

Miller points out that nowhere in the peer-reviewed studies or monitoring programs of the past 30 years is there persuasive evidence of health or environmental problems stemming from GE seeds or crops. Quite the opposite: The technology used to produce these seeds is a paragon of agricultural progress and benefits the environment, so those who oppose it must face some inconvenient truths.

And one truth is the herbicide-resistant alfalfa and sugar beet seeds under attack by activists are just the beginning of what will be necessary to feed a growing world: The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that agricultural production must grow 70 percent by 2050, which will require "pushing the agricultural technology frontier outwards," Miller s ays. Genetic engineering is the key to these advances.

Miller sums up activists' lawsuits this way: "The delay of progress toward what even the United Nations has said will be necessary to feed a growing world is an example of irresponsible, despicable activism that is less a cause than a grudge. The environment, farmers and American businesses will all suffer the consequences."

It can't be said any clearer than that.


Plant Science Technologies Help Preserve Biodiversity While Increasing Food Production
- CropLife International, May 21, 2010

CropLife International Welcomes International Day for Biological Diversity

Plant science innovations are key to helping farmers conserve biodiversity while providing a sustainable food supply to meet global demand.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that food production needs to increase by 70% if we are to feed nine billion in 2050. To achieve this, a further 30 million hectares of cropland may be needed (OECD). If biodiversity is to be preserved, the amount of parkland, forests and natural habitats brought into agricultural use must be minimised. Recent data from the 2010 Biodiversity Indicators Partnership and the UN show that further biodiversity loss is likely.

"We have much of the knowledge and technology that is needed to preserve and enhance biodiversity. We need to globally coordinate policies that recognise the role of this knowledge and technology, and better facilitate the conservation of critical biodiversity," said CropLife International CEO and President, Howard Minigh.

Plant science technologies, including crop protection and plant biotechnology, help farmers increase the productivity of existing arable land in use, significantly reducing the need to expand agricultural land, and therefore limiting the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats.

Biotech crops are already contributing to higher yields for many farmers around the world. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) believes that biotech crops have the potential to increase yields globally by up to 25%. Plant breeding practices, including biotechnology, have further led to an increase in the genetic variety of crops, as shown in a recent study of crop diversity over the past forty years by the Dutch Centre for Genetic Resources. New breeding techniques make it easier and faster for breeders to introduce improved, new varieties.

Crop protection products increase agricultural productivity by reducing crop losses to pests and disease. Without this technology, yield losses would double to reach 40-80%. In addition, these products are critical to protecting local biodiversity from the impact of invasive alien species, such as the salt cedar tree in the US, which can consume up to 1,000 litres of water in one day, as well as increasing the salinity of surrounding water and soil.

Every year, CropLife International's stewardship programmes help 250,000-350,000 farmers access training in sustainable, locally adapted farming practices including Integrated Crop Management (ICM), Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and conservation tillage, all of which make significant contributions to biological diversity.

Keith Jones, Director of Stewardship and Sustainable Agriculture, CropLife International, says, "Agriculture is both reliant on a rich ecosystem, and a vital force in maintaining it. Farmers today face a double challenge of having to increase their productivity while preserving the rich biodiversity upon which long-term food security depends."

Note to Editors:

CropLife International is the global federation representing the plant science industry. It supports a network of regional and national associations in 91 countries, and is led by companies such as BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, FMC, Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta. CropLife International promotes the benefits of crop protection and biotechnology products, their importance to sustainable agriculture and food production, and their responsible use through stewardship activities.


A Harvest for 9.2 Billion
- Pamela Ronald, Zester Daily, May 19, 2010

Sustainable agriculture demands cutting edge science and farming practices, says scientist Pamela Ronald.

The number of people on Earth is expected to shoot up from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. How will we feed them? If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, and farm workers will be exposed to more and more chemicals. And still, we will not have enough food. Clearly, there must be a better way.

Some scientists and policymakers suggest that genetic engineering, a modern form of crop modification, will dramatically reduce our dependence on pesticides, enhance the health of our agricultural systems and increase the nutritional content of food. They believe these genetically engineered crops will help agriculture end decades of dangerous overuse of pesticides and toxic herbicides, leading us to a more ecological way of farming.

Will it? The organic farming community has been particularly vocal in its skepticism, viewing GE crops as unnatural, potentially unsafe to eat and environmentally disruptive. For these reasons, the National Organic Program standards currently do not permit their farmers to grow GE crops.

Last month the National Research Council weighed in, publishing a comprehensive overview of the environmental, economic and social impacts of GE crops -- the three essential pillars of sustainable agriculture. Their report supports the growing consensus that GE crops and ecological farming practices can coexist -- and if we are serious about building a future sustainable agriculture, they must.

The NRC found that the use of GE crops over the last 14 years has led to improved soil quality, reduced erosion, massive reduction in insecticide use, higher yields, lower production costs and increased worker safety due to reduced exposure to harsh chemicals. Previous reports have noted that GE crops have not caused instance of harm to human health or the environment.

So are GE crops enough to feed the world?

A premise basic to almost every agricultural system (e.g., conventional and organic) is that seed can only take us so far. The farming practices used to cultivate the seed are equally important. That is why NRC scientists also outlined some of the pitfalls encountered when ecological farming practices are not integrated into the production of GE crops. For instance, one of the most environmentally benign and highly valued herbicides, glyphosate (sold as Roundup), is no longer effective in controlling some weeds because of an over-reliance on that single herbicide. The herbicide resistance that the NRC report documents is not due to the GE crop; it's due to repeated applications of glyphosate without integration of other weed-management tactics, a problem that has to be managed in all crops.

To understand how improved seeds and farming practices work together, you need only look at transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops, which are genetically engineered to resist insect pests.

It has long been known that using just one resistant plant variety can spur natural selection for insects that overcome the resistance. Armed with this knowledge, Bt crops in the U.S. were deployed using a "refuge" strategy whereby farmers planted a certain percentage of their cotton acreage in non Bt-producing cultivars. This would provide pests a refuge where they could feed on plants lacking toxins, thereby maintaining Bt susceptible resistance alleles within the insect population.

It worked.

Today, Bt cotton farmers in Arizona spray half the insecticide as their neighbors who grow conventional crops yet harvest the same amount of cotton. Bt cotton is still an effective pest management tool. At the same time, these Bt croplands harbor a higher diversity of beneficial insects (as measured by ant and beetle biodiversity) compared to conventional farms because there are fewer insecticides sprayed that would kill them. In other parts of the world where an integrated approach was not implemented in Bt croplands, insect resistance has already evolved.

Another management problem associated with Bt crops has recently emerged in northern China where Bt cotton has been adopted by 95 percent of cotton growers. It controls the pest cotton boll worm so effectively that farmers dramatically reduced their insecticide applications. So much so, that other pests, called mirid bugs, normally controlled by these sprays, have emerged. As a consequence, farmers are again spraying some insecticides to control the mirids (although still a third less than before the introduction of Bt crops).

Ecologically based farming systems and GE crops alone won't provide all the changes needed in agriculture. Other farming systems and technological changes, as well as modified government policies, undoubtedly are also required. Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that ecological farming practices using genetically engineered seed will play an increasingly important role.

We need the best science and technology to achieve sustainable agriculture that will feed the world. Accomplishing this task will require globally coordinated efforts to integrate ecologically sound, but highly productive, agricultural practices, including many of the ideas promoted by organic farmers, such as crop rotation and crop diversity to global agricultural production.

We also need improved seed. This includes not only conventional tools for seed improvement, such as pollination, tissue culture, mutagenesis and grafting (mixing two species to create a new variety), but also modern molecular tools such as marker-assisted breeding and genetic engineering.

It is by looking beyond the ideologies that we will approach the shared goal of a sustainable agriculture that will feed the world.

Pamela Ronald is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California at Davis where her lab grows genetically engineered rice for flood tolerance and disease resistance. She and her husband, organic farmer Raoul Adamchak, are co-authors of "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food."


A Brief History of Unnatural Selection
- Albert Fuchs, M.D., The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angles, May 21, 2010

Indulge me as I digress from writing about health this week to write about an important scientific breakthrough.

People have been altering the living things around us as long as we have been around. We domesticated wild wolves into tame dogs and kept them for protection and as pets. Eventually humans began to farm, and raise livestock. We then began selecting the best animals to breed for the next generation, and we selected seeds from the best plants to sow. Generation after generation, we changed the animals and plants that we had domesticated by allowing only those with characteristics we valued to reproduce. We had no idea what made wheat grain larger or why some sheep grew more wool, we just knew that these traits are inherited, and by breeding the right specimens we could get more of what we wanted. Through this simple repetitive selective breeding all human crops and domesticated livestock eventually became unrecognizable from their wild origins. The wheat we eat today has about as much resemblance to pre-human wheat as my neighbor's yippy dachshund has to a wolf.

So millennia before any people were rigorously studying living things (engaged in what we now call biology) people were progressively modifying many animal and plant species. In 1859 Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" his landmark work which argued that just as people select the pet cats and tomatoes and carrots that form the next generation, nature selects the survivors of every species to reproduce. He proposed that it is this selection by nature (i.e. natural selection) that explains how all species change over time and how new species arise from older forms.

At about the same time Gregor Mendel showed that inheritance follows certain predictable patterns. The offspring are not simply a blend of the traits of the parents. Rather the parents' traits are somehow transmitted in distinct indivisible packages (now called genes) which are inherited and expressed according to simple rules he described.

In the 1940s and 50s the molecule carrying genetic information was found to be deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. And in 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the shape of the DNA molecule - the double spiral staircase - that allowed it to serve as a molecular information storehouse.

Since then the fields of molecular biology and genetic engineering have exploded, with the development of techniques to identify, isolate and sequence genes. In 1977 the entire set of genes (genome) of a virus was sequenced, meaning its entire DNA code was deduced. Since then the genomes of many species, including humans, have been sequenced. Genes have been inserted into crops to make them more resistant to disease and the molecular mechanisms of some genetic diseases have been discovered.

(By the way, those who object to genetically modified organisms in their food should not eat any crops at all since all modern crops have been modified through human selection since prehistory. Genetic modification is just a finer tool for continuing the work of millennia. Now that I think about it, these critics should also only keep wild tigers and wolves for pets.)

This week another threshold has been crossed. Investigators synthesized an entire genome from scratch, inserted it into cells that had their original DNA removed, and formed cells that reproduced and expressed their new synthetic genes. The effort took 15 years. The achievement has no immediate practical uses. It was simply a demonstration of the technologies required for such a feat. Potential practical uses are myriad, but are likely far off in the future. Their discovery was published in the journal Science and has received much press attention.

Though we have much more to learn, the pace of discovery is accelerating.

Learn more:

Wall Street Journal article: Scientists Create Synthetic Organism <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703559004575256470152341984.html>http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703559004575256470152341984.html


*Compiled by Andrew Apel. Prior editions archived at the AgBioWorld Foundation, <http://www.agbioworld.org>http://www.agbioworld.org