In This Issue

November 22, 2017

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Beyond Promises: Facts about Biotech/GM Crops in 2016
A visual presentation of the 10 important highlights about biotech crops from 1996 to 2016, taken from ISAAA Brief 52: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016.
From Fear to Facts: 17 Years of Agri-biotech Reporting in the Philippines (2000-2016)
The publication is based on a study conducted by ISAAA and SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center published in the April 2017 issue of Philippine Journal of Crop Science.
Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016
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News

Global

The 2017 International Food Biotechnology and Biosafety Workshop organized by Hacettepe University and Michigan State University on October 9-11, 2017 in Ankara, Turkey has released its final declaration.

The workshop's final declaration emphasized the need for modern biotechnology as a key technology for food and agricultural science, which are widely considered as the future of global food security by the scientific community. It also states that modern biotechnology plays an integral role in the interaction of food, agriculture, environment, and sustainability.

The workshop focused on key thematic issues in the legal framework, socio-economic considerations and risk assessment in support of modern biotechnology research and biosafety monitoring and decision-making.

For more details, contact Dr. Remziye Yilmaz at remziye@hacettepe.edu.tr.

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Africa

Cotton stakeholders in Nigeria have agreed that Bt cotton has the potential to revive the deteriorating cotton textile industry in the country. A stakeholders meeting held in Abuja on November 8, 2017 attended by representatives from seed companies, government ministries, agencies, and farmers resolved that embracing Bt cotton is a viable way of addressing cotton farming challenges.

Nigeria's Minister of State for Trade and Investment, Aisha Abubakar, said the country has no option but to embrace the technology to help improve the lives of farmers and create jobs for the teeming population. "We cannot allow people to import Bt cotton into Nigeria, we now have the people, the technology, and the land to practice how to take full advantage of the technology to address our own challenges," she said.

All Farmers Association of Nigeria president, Arc. Kabiru Ibrahim, said that it is important that Nigeria take its pride in cotton production by embracing Bt cotton, and exuding confidence that it will alleviate poverty among the farmers.

The National Biosafety Management Agency approved Bollgard II cotton for on-station/on-farm trials in Nigeria in 2016 and it is currently undergoing last stage of multi-location trials in over 72 locations in the nation's cotton growing zones. The project has already been endorsed by Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, Audu Ogbe, and stakeholders in the country are now strategizing on eventual uptake and release of Bollgard II cotton to farmers.

For more information on biotech/biosafety developments in Nigeria, contact Alex Abutu at alexyabutu@gmail.com.

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Americas

Researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) have identified a gene that enables wheat resistance to the stem rust strain UG99 that was discovered in Uganda in 1999. Stem rust is a devastating fungal disease that hampers wheat production throughout Africa and Asia and threatening food security worldwide.

UC Davis wheat geneticist Jorge Dubcovsky and his team identified three different resistance forms of Sr13, a gene from pasta wheat that is effective against Ug99 and another group of virulent stem-rust strains from Yemen and Ethiopia. In 2013, Dubcovsky and fellow researchers discovered another gene called Sr35 that also provides resistance to Ug99. The team is close to identifying a third gene that confers protection from the stem rust strain.

"Wheat provides a substantial amount of calories and proteins consumed by humans. We hope that a better understanding of the wheat-rust pathosystem will speed the development of new strategies to control this devastating pathogen," Dubcovsky said.

For more information, read the UC Davis report.

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Asia and the Pacific

The office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) of Australia has released "Community Attitudes to Gene Technology," a report on the 2017 study of public attitudes towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gene technology and its regulation.

The overall finding of the 2017 survey is that attitudes to GMOs have settled, mirroring very closely the results from the 2015 study, and not showing the degree of change seen between previous studies. Other key findings state that knowledge about what foods in Australia were GM is generally poor.

The survey also reports that most respondents (71%) felt that biotechnology would improve life in the future, while only 46% felt that GMOs would improve life in the future. Although only 43% of people had any awareness or knowledge of synthetic biology, there was significant support for it (62%) once respondents were given a definition.

More than half of respondents (56%) stated they were aware of gene editing and 57% thought it might improve life in the future, but 17% thought it might make things worse. Gene editing received quite high acceptance (42%) relative to other techniques, when asked about making a small change to an existing gene within a plant, as is done in gene editing.

For more details, download the report at the OGTR website.

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Twenty-nine (29) senior high school students and their science teachers from Isabela, Laguna, Iloilo, Cebu, Davao, and Cagayan De Oro were enlightened on the issues and trends in agriculture and agri-biotech through lectures on biotech principles and applications in crops, livestock, and fisheries; the agriculture landscape in Southeast Asia; and hands on exercises on DNA extraction and edible landscaping during the Agri-biotech Boot Camp for Senior High School Students on November 15-17, 2017 at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) Headquarters, Los Baños, Laguna.

The activity was conducted to create awareness and build interest in agriculture and introduce traditional and modern biotech as a career among the students. The boot camp is a build-up activity for the 13th National Biotechnology Week celebrated on November 20-24, 2017 at Fisher Mall, Quezon City.

The activity also involved briefings and study visits to the biotech laboratories and facilities of the University of the Philippines Los Baños - Institute of Plant Breeding (UPLB-IPB) and UPLB-National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (UPLB-BIOTECH), and the Rice World Museum of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Interactive games related to biotech were also facilitated by student organizations University of the Philippines League of Agricultural Biotechnology Students (UP LABS) and UP Genetic Researchers and Agricultural Innovators Society (UP GRAINS) for both student and teacher participants.

The boot camp was organized by the SEARCA – Biotechnology Information Center (SEARCA BIC), UPLB-IPB, Philippine Genome Center for Agriculture, Department of Agriculture - Biotech Program Office (DA-BPO), UP LABS, and UP GRAINS.

The National Biotechnology Week this year is spearheaded by the DA. Congresswoman Sharon Garin served as guest speaker in the opening program and acknowledged that biotech is indeed one of the solutions to food security. She said that farmers who choose to plant biotech corn reap benefits through increased yield and low production costs.

For more information on biotechnology in the Philippines, visit the SEARCA BIC website.

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Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan, Executive Director of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre, and Muthu Singaram of VibaZone Private Limited in Malaysia, discussed the landscape of biotechnology and bioeconomy in Malaysia in a review article published in New Biotechnology journal.

According to the paper, Malaysia released its biotechnology agenda in 1990s and came up with strong policies and initiatives to make the technology a key engine of economic growth. Since the inception of the National Biotechnology Policy in 2005, there have been significant achievements in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), investments, and employment.

The paper also discusses the public policies, initiatives and funding mechanisms in place in Malaysia that drive its research, development, and commercialization in the area of biotechnology and bioeconomy. Challenges in implementing the policies were also discussed in the paper.

Download the paper in New Biotechnology.

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Researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have developed and grown modified Cavendish bananas that are resistant to the devastating soil-borne fungus Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4), also known as Panama disease.

Led by Distinguished Professor James Dale from QUT's Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, the field trial, which ran from 2012 to 2015 was conducted on a commercial banana plantation that was previously affected by TR4. The soil was heavily reinfested with disease for the trial.

In their world-first GM field trial conducted in heavily TR4-infested soil, Cavendish Grand Nain was modified by the researchers with the RGA2 gene, taken from the TR4-resistant wild, southeast Asian banana subspecies, Musa acuminata ssp malaccensis. One modified Cavendish line (RGA2-3) remained TR4-free for three years of the trial, while three other lines modified with RGA2 showed strong resistance, with 20% or fewer plants exhibiting disease symptoms in three years.

By contrast, 67%-100% of control banana plants after three years were either dead or TR4-infected, including a Giant Cavendish variant 218 generated through tissue culture in Taiwan and reported to be tolerant to TR4. The researchers found RGA2 gene activity level in the modified bananas was ‘strongly correlated' with TR4 resistance.

For more details, read the QUT news release.

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Around 400 high school and college students and faculty in Laguna, as well as regulators, researchers and scientists from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), were informed about various perspectives on the international debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the special screening of the documentary film Food Evolution held on November 21, 2017 at DL Umali Hall, UPLB, College, Laguna. Food Evolution is narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson and features GMOs and its food products, their contribution to food security, and how misinformation affects public perception despite being scientifically documented in terms of safety and benefits. The film showing was an activity for the 13th National Biotechnology Week which is celebrated on November 20-24, 2017 at Fisher Mall, Quezon City.

After the film, the audience commended the balanced presentation of pro and anti-biotech sentiments. They also asked the scientists about the safety of GM crop planting and research. UPLB genetics professor Dr. Rita Laude emphasized that GM crops in the market have been rigorously studied and tested by regulators.

The activity was organized by SEARCA BIC, ISAAA, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), CropLife Asia, CropLife Philippines, Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines, University of the Philippines League of Agricultural Biotechnology Students (UP LABS), and UP Genetic Researchers and Agricultural Innovators Society (UP GRAINS).

For more information, visit the SEARCA BIC website.

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Europe

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Food Safety Authority (GMO Panel) has given reauthorization for a genetically modified (GM) sugar beet in the European Union (EU).

Developed by KWS SAAT SE and Monsanto Company, the GM sugar beet H7-1 has been modified to be herbicide resistant. The published risk assessment for application EFSA-GMO-RX-006 under Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 is for renewal of authorization of GM sugar beet H7-1 for import and processing, excluding cultivation within the European Union (EU).

According to the GMO Panel, under the assumption that the DNA sequence of the event in sugar beet H7-1 considered for renewal is identical to the corrected sequence of the originally assessed event, the GMO Panel concludes that there is no evidence in the context of this renewal application for new hazards, modified exposure or scientific uncertainties that would change the conclusions of the original risk assessment on sugar beet H7-1.

For more details, read the assessment in the EFSA Journal.

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Research

The miR159 is a conserved microRNA (miRNA) among different plant species and has various development functions in plants. In rice, studies on miR159 were focused upon responses to nitrogen forms and abiotic stresses. The team of Yafan Zhao and Huili Wen from Henan Agricultural University aim to study the function of miR159 using Short Tandem Target Mimic (STTM), an effective tool to block the activity of endogenous mature miRNA activity in plants.

The expression of miR159 was successfully suppressed by STTM, resulting in the increased expressions of its two target genes, OsGAMYB and OsGAMYBL1. The STTM159 plants exhibited short stature with smaller organ sizes as well as decreases in stem diameter, length of flag leaf, main panicle, spikelet hulls and grain size. Analysis showed a reduction in the number of small vascular bundles (SVB), and less cell numbers in the outer parenchyma.

Meanwhile, analysis of differentially expressed genes between wild type plants and STTM159 transgenic plants showed that genes involved in cell division, auxin, cytokinin and brassinosteroids biosynthesis and signaling are significantly downregulated in STTM159 plants.

These data suggest that miR159 positively regulates organ size via the promotion of cell division.

For more on this study, read the article in BMC Plant Biology.

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Verticillium wilts caused by soil-borne species of the Verticillium genus are important plant diseases that affect a wide range of host plants and are notoriously difficult to combat. In tomato, race-specific resistance to Verticillium wilt is governed by the cell surface-localized immune receptor Ve1 through recognition of the effector protein Ave1 that is secreted by race 1 strains of Verticillium.

Previous studies have demonstrated that transgenic expression of tomato Ve1 in Arabidopsis thaliana leads to Verticillium wilt resistance. The team of Yin song from Wageningen University in the Netherlands tested if tomato Ve1 can confer resistance when expressed in tobacco (Nicotiana tabaccum) and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum).

Transgenic tobacco and cotton plants expressing tomato Ve1 exhibited enhanced resistance against Verticillium wilt. This demonstrates the functionality of tomato Ve1 in Verticillium wilt resistance through recognition of the Verticillium effector Ave1.

These results suggest that transfer of tomato Ve1 across plant species can be exploited in breeding programs to engineer Verticillium wilt resistance.

For more information on this study, read the article in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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New Breeding Technologies

Various GE techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 have been successfully employed for various crop plants including fruit trees. CRISPR-Cas9 holds great potential in GE due to their simplicity, competency, and versatility over other GE techniques. However, no such genetic improvement has been developed in date palm, an important fruit crop in Oasis agriculture.

The availability of the date palm full genome sequence opened up a new door for improvement of date palm through GE and genetic manipulation. High salinity, extreme drought regimes, and blazing heat are major abiotic stresses affecting date palm. Moreover, biotic stresses are also a major worry for date palm. Developing a high yielding, resistant and good fruit quality cultivar is imperative but demands a stringent, comprehensive and reliable methodology.

However, several factors should be taken into account to fully apply CRISPR to date palm breeding. This includes designing the sgRNA to prevent off-target mutations as well as the CRISPR-Cas9 cassette delivery method into date palm cells, both of which are highly significant for the program to be successful. Date palm also has some genetic characteristics that may affect the applicability of CRISPR-Cas9, such as its outcrossing nature. This phenomenon brings high allelic heterozygosity, polymorphism, and thus, genetic instability to date palm.

The future application of CRISPR-Cas9 in date palm will not only address the basic biological questions but will definitely reduce the concerns of common people due to its non-GM nature.

For more on this review, read the full article in Frontiers in Plant Science.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

University of California, Riverside (UCR) researchers have developed transgenic mosquitoes that stably express the Cas9 enzyme in their germline. Cas9 enables the use of the CRISPR gene editing tool to make efficient, targeted changes to the mosquitoes' DNA.

The researchers used CRISPR to disrupt cuticle, wing, and eye development, producing completely yellow, three-eyed and wingless mosquitoes. Their long-term goal is to use Cas9-expressing mosquitoes together with gene drives to insert and spread genes that suppress the insects while avoiding the resistance that evolution would typically favor. Aedes aegypti are major carriers of dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, and zika viruses, and are rapidly becoming resistant to commonly used pesticides.

The study was led by Omar Akbari, assistant professor of entomology in UCR's College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. He said these strains represent the first step towards using gene drive systems to control mosquito populations and reduce the diseases they spread.

For more details, read UCR Today.

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Principal investigator of the Target Malaria Project in Burkina Faso Dr. Abdoulaye Diabate said that the GM mosquito research has taken off successfully in the country. Speaking during an information and training workshop on the implementation of the authorization to experiment with transgenic mosquitoes held on November 8-9, 2017, Dr. Diabate said the project team has been trained on maintaining and working with modified mosquitoes in a contained environment.

Target Malaria is an innovative project aiming to reduce the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in sub-Saharan Africa consequentially reducing the transmission of the disease. The project uses gene drive technology to insert a gene into the genome of male mosquitoes to make them sterile. The male mosquitoes are then released in swarms to the wild to mate with Anopheles gambiae mosquito, responsible for most cases of malaria in Africa. The male induces their sterility to the female, thus cutting down mosquito population.

Dr. Diabate made an assurance that once finalized, the technology will be made available to the governments of countries affected by this parasitic disease without license fees. He urged stakeholders to synergize action for the efficient implementation of the project to fight effectively against malaria.

Prof. Chantal Zoungrana, Director General of the Burkina Faso Biosafety Authority emphasized the importance of setting up a communication mechanism in the national biosafety framework. She noted that this is particularly important for the country due to the upsurge of anti-GM activists following the suspension of Bt cotton production in 2016.

The workshop, attended by members of the national biosafety framework and stakeholders from the Ministry of Higher Education, Scientific Research and Innovation (MESRSI), also focused on Burkinabe national biosafety framework with special emphasis on the regulatory system governing the implementation of the Target Malaria project.

According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 200 million new cases of malaria infection and 420,000 deaths every year. Africa alone accounts for 90% of the cases and 92% of the deaths. In Africa, the economic losses associated with this disease are estimated at about twelve million dollars a year.

Read more from the National Agency for Biosafety (ANB) of Burkina Faso.

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Announcements

What: 2017 Conservation Tillage Conference

When: December 5-6, 2017

Where: Minnesota, USA

For more information, visit the conference website.

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