In This Issue

February 15, 2017

Latest Communication Products

ISAAA in 2016
ISAAA in 2016 summarizes the efforts of ISAAA to bring the benefits of biotechnology to the world, especially in the developing nations.
Voices and Views: Potential Benefits from Adopting GM Crops
This video presents the viewpoints of biotech experts and stakeholders from different countries about the possible impact of biotech crops in case non-adopting countries decide to commercialize biotech crops.
Biotech Conversations: Real Farmers from aAround the World Talk About Biotech
What do farmers from around the globe say about biotech crops? ISAAA answered this question by compiling farmers' testimonies on biotech crops and presented them in cartoons.
Pocket K No. 53: Anti-allergy Biotech Crops
Pocket K on Anti-allergy Biotech Crops, which presents how GM crops tested for allergens and how biotechnology applications are used to remove allergens in food crops.
WATCH: Benefits of Countries from Adopting and Importing GM Crops
The video presents the viewpoints of biotech experts and stakeholders from different adopting countries such as Burkina Faso, Brazil, South Africa, and China.

News

Africa

John Cardinal Onaiyekan, the Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria, together with other church leaders have called on agricultural biotechnology experts to undertake research that is focused on the population's agricultural challenges. The leaders met with agri-biotech researchers, regulators, and communicators at Daughters of Divine Love Retreat and Conference Centre (DRACC) Lugbe, Abuja on February 7, 2017. The Director General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Lucy Ogbadu who gave an overview on the global status of GM crops, explained the need to create access to this technology for farmers. "The position of the Catholic Church is to leave scientists to do their research, but we are also constantly looking at what comes out of it in the light of the will of God and what is good for human beings," said Cardinal Onaiyekan. He further said that safe use of the technology is the church's utmost priority.

Dr. Rufus Ebegba, the Director General of Nigeria National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) reassured the faith-based leaders that the Agency is diligently doing its job in ensuring GM technology is well regulated. The agency was created following the ratification of Nigeria's Biosafety Management Act in 2015, which ensures safety application of modern biotechnology.

Prof. Mohammed Ishiyaku, the Bt cowpea project principal investigator, made a presentation on the need to develop Bt cowpea, one of the key biotech crops under research in Nigeria. The project addresses one of the most damaging pests that poses threat to millions of Nigerians who rely on the crop for food security.

Cardinal Onaiyekan was accompanied by priests, nuns, and Catholic medical professionals in the event that was organized by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, Nigeria Chapter in collaboration with the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CNS) and the Action Family Foundation (AFF). 

For more information on the event and biotechnology developments in Nigeria, contact Dr. Rose Gidado, OFAB-Nigeria Coordinator at roxydado91@gmail.com.

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Americas

Plant scientists led by University of Missouri (MU) researchers have found one of the mechanisms that cyst nematodes use to invade and drain life-sustaining nutrients from soybean plants. Cyst nematodes are one of the most economically devastating groups of plant-parasitic nematodes worldwide, damaging root systems and leeching nutrients out of the soybean plant.

Fifteen years ago, Melissa Goellner Mitchum and colleagues at MU unlocked clues into how nematodes use small chains of amino acids, or peptides, to feed on soybean roots. Using next-generation sequencing technologies, the research team in Mitchum's laboratory discovered that nematodes produce a second type of peptide that can effectively "take over" plant stem cells that are used to create vital pathways for the delivery of nutrients throughout the plant. The researchers compared these peptides with those produced by plants and found that they were identical to the ones the plants use to maintain vascular stem cells, known as CLE-B peptides.

The team synthesized the CLE-B nematode peptide and applied it to the vascular cells of Arabidopsis. They found that the nematode peptides triggered a growth response in Arabidopsis much in the same way as the plants' own peptides affected development. When the team "knocked out" the genes Arabidopsis plants use to signal to their own stem cells, the nematodes didn't do as well because the parasites were unable to signal to the plant, and the nematode's feeding site was compromised.

"By knocking out that pathway, we reduced the size of the feeding site that nematodes use to control the plant. This is the first time we've been able to show that the nematode is modulating or controlling the vascular plant pathway," Mitchum said.

For more details, read the news release from the MU News Bureau.

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A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Riverside has found that the orientation of cell division is critical for overall plant growth. The researchers were working with a maize mutant, called tangled1, with known defects in growth and division plane orientation of cells. Division plane orientation refers to the positioning of new cell walls during division.

The team used time-lapse live cell imaging showing hundreds of hours of maize cells dividing. The time lapse allowed them to characterize a previously unknown delay during cell division stages in the mutant maize. The study clarified the relationship between growth, timely division progression, and proper division plane orientation. According to the study, delays during division do not necessarily cause growth defects, but the improper placement of new cell walls, together with delays during division causes growth defects. Therefore, division plane orientation is critical, but a potentially indirect factor for growth.

For more details, read the news release from UCR Today.

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Scientists from the University of Illinois investigated the molecular mechanism that enables plants to lessen water loss while facing drought. They focused on a key hormone known as abscisic acid (ABA) which binds to a protein (PYL receptor) and then causes a series of reactions leading to the closing of pores in the plants' leaves. When this happens, there is zero or minimal water loss from the plants.

The researchers thought of using ABA to spray on plants to make them drought resistant. However, ABA is moderately stable and molecularly complex to be directly sprayed on plants. Thus, the goal is to make another compound that mimics ABA. They used experimental techniques such as X-ray diffraction to understand the molecular mechanism involved between ABA and the PYL receptor, but it was difficult to catch the two in the act. With the use of molecular dynamic simulations in supercomputers, the researchers got the answers. They successfully simulated two kinds of PYL receptors from Arabidopsis. They plan to confirm if the mechanism is also present in other plants such as rice.

Read the abstract of the study at the Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society's website.

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Asia and the Pacific

Quinoa is a grain that thrives in harsh environments, growing well on poor quality soils. This grain was once the staple "Mother Grain" in ancient Andean civilizations, but was marginalized when the Spanish arrived in South America. Now, an international team of researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) led by Prof. Mark Tester, have completed the first high-quality sequence of the Chenopodium quinoa genome, and they have begun identifying genes that could be manipulated to change the way the plant matures and produces food.

The project, which brought together 33 researchers from four continents, including 20 people from seven research groups at KAUST, used a combination of techniques to piece together full chromosomes of C. quinoa. The resulting genome is the highest available quinoa sequence to date, and is yielding insights into the plant's traits and growth mechanisms.

The sequencing project helped in the identification of the transcription factor likely to control the production of anti-nutritional triterpenoid saponins in quinoa seeds. The research team also found a mutation that appears to cause alternative splicing and a premature stop codon in sweet quinoa strains.

The results of their study are available as an open-access article in Nature. For more details, read the news release from KAUST.

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Australia's gene technology regulator approved the five-year test planting of biotech bananas in the Northern Territory. The research is being conducted by Prof. James Dale and other scientists from the Queensland University of Technology.

The researchers will test 200 transgenic lines of Cavendish bananas on more than 6 hectares in the Litchfield region. The main objective of the test is to come up with a variety with maximum resistance to Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4), which is a common fungal disease attacking bananas in the Northern Territory since 2015. According to Prof. Dale, the initial results of their study show that there are lines exhibiting complete resistance to the disease. He also mentioned that there are no genetically engineered bananas commercialized in Australia to date. However, if the Panama disease becomes widespread, it will be their responsibility to work until the GE banana will be deregulated in Australia to help the banana growers.

For more details, read the articles in Fruit Net and ABC Rural.

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Australia's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has issued a license to Nuseed Pty Ltd., allowing the field trials of Indian mustard (Juncea canola) genetically modified (GM) for altered oil content. The field trials (License Application DIR 149) will be carried out between April 2017 and May 2022, and will take place at a maximum of 4 sites of up to 2 hectares per site in 2017, 10 sites of up to 5 hectares per site in 2018, and 15 sites of up to 10 hectares per site in each subsequent year.

The final Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plan (RARMP) concludes that this limited and controlled release poses negligible risks to people and the environment and does not require specific risk treatment measures. The finalized RARMP, together with a summary of the RARMP, a set of Questions and Answers on this decision and a copy of the license, are available online from the DIR 149 page in the OGTR website.

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Europe

Scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich have discovered how complex plant shapes are formed. The work, led by Dr. Alexandra Rebocho and colleagues in Professor Enrico Coen's laboratory, could have wide implications on the understanding of shape formation, or ‘morphogenesis', in nature. Understanding how genes influence plant shape formation would lead to better-adapted and higher yielding crop varieties.

One of the prevailing theories of how complex plant shapes develop, upon which this new research builds, is the theory of 'tissue conflict resolution'. In this theory, growth outcomes depend on tissues. In isolation, individual tissue regions grow equally in all directions or elongate in a preferred direction. In reality, tissue regions do not occur in isolation, but the adhesion and cohesion between adjoining regions cause tissues to buckle, curve, or bend to a compromise state.

The three proposed types of tissue conflict resolution are areal, surface, and directional. The new research provides evidence for the third category: directional conflict. Tissues, or collections of tissues, can have a set of directions, or ‘polarity field', which is caused by the asymmetrical distribution of proteins within cells. An example of a response to this directionality is when plants grow faster parallel or perpendicular to the local polarity field.

For more information about this research, read the news release from the John Innes Centre.

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Research

Natural rubber (NR) is an important raw material for industrial products, with the primary source being the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. However, increased global demand means that alternative sources are required. The Russian dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz) is a potential alternative due to large amounts of NR produced in its root system. However, rubber synthesis must be improved in dandelion for it to be a feasible alternate. T. koksaghyz also produces large amounts of the carbohydrate inulin, which is stored in parenchymal root cell vacuoles near the phloem.

Scientist Anna Stolze of the University of Muenster in Germany and colleagues performed a comprehensive analysis of inulin and NR metabolism in T. koksaghyz and its relative T. brevicorniculatum and characterized the enzyme fructan 1-exohydrolase (1-FEH), which catalyzes the degradation of inulin to fructose and sucrose. Overexpression of Tk1-FEH almost doubled the rubber content in the roots of two dandelion species without any negative effect on the plant since it degraded stored inulin to boost NR production.

This is the first study showing that the reserve carbohydrate inulin can be used to promote the synthesis of NR in dandelions.

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

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New Breeding Technologies

Breeding technologies, whether conventional or modern, have been often used to enhance crop production. However, these breeding methods are sometimes laborious and complicated, especially when attempting to improve desired traits without inducing pleiotropic effects.

Targeted genome editing (TGE) technology using engineered nucleases, including meganucleases, zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), and clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) has been used to improve the traits of economically important plants.

These TGEs has emerged as novel plant-breeding tools that are alternative approaches to conventional breeding, but with higher efficiency.

Saminathan Subburaj of the Chungnam National University in South Korea, together with researchers from various academic institutions, described the basic principles of TGE as well as their advantages and disadvantages. Their study also discussed TGEs' potential use to improve the traits of horticultural crops.

For more information, read the article in Horticulture, Environment, and Biotechnology.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Scientists in Australia are working with a conservation team in the U.S. to conduct the first gene drive in mammals aimed at eradicating invasive rodents attacking seabirds on islands.

Gene drive technology is a new way of changing the trend of inheritance so that wild animals can be genetically enhanced when born, for instance, to cause a significant decline in the population. This technology has been used in insects, particularly in mosquitoes to get rid of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and zika.

Paul Thomas, a mouse geneticist at the University of Adelaide, developed "daughterless mice" using CRISPR technology. Since the mice will only produce male offspring, the mouse populations on an island will decline and eventually be zero if the technique becomes effective. To trace the genetically altered mice, the researchers also enabled the expression of an inheritable fluorescent protein in the mice which will make them glow red when exposed to blacklight.

When this technique turns out to be effective, it can be a favorable alternative to applying poisons to eradicate rodents.

For more information, read the original article in MIT Technology Review.

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RNAi (RNA interference) technology has been used to develop insect and disease resistant crops. Mythimna separata belongs to noctuidae family of lepidoptera and is posing threat to crops of economic importance. Recently, outbreaks of M. separata severely threaten corn production in Northern China, calling for new control approaches. The team of Oyunchuluun Ganbaatar from Inner Mongolia University chose to target chitinase genes as they were expressed predominantly in the gut tissue and were reported to be ideal silencing targets in several insect species.

Interfering sequences against the target genes were cloned into the L4440 vector to produce sequence specific dsRNAs (double-stranded RNAs). These were then transformed into Escherichia coli strain HT115 (DE3). The bacteria were mixed with artificial diet and were fed to M. separata.

Analysis showed that expression level of target MseChi1 and MseChi2 genes in gut tissue of M. separata were downregulated after oral delivery of engineered bacteria expressing the corresponding dsRNA. Furthermore, knockdown of MseChi1 and MseChi2 resulted in increased mortality and reduced body weight of the feeding larvae.

This study reports a simple and low cost experimental procedure to silence M. separata endogenous gene expression. This provides both an experimental foundation for using RNAi technology to control M. separata and also a tool for loss-of-function studies of genes in this species.

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

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Announcements

What: BIO International Convention

When: June 19-22, 2017

Where: San Diego, CA, USA

For more details, visit the conference website.

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What: 4th International Conference on Plant Transformation and Biotechnology

Where: Vienna, Austria

When: June 29-30, 2017

For more details on registration and abstract submission, visit the conference website.

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Document Reminders

The report of the meeting on Genome Editing and the Future of Farming held in September 2016 at The Roslin Institute is published in Transgenic Research. According to the report, genome editing is a game-changing technology and that society, systems (regulatory and funding) and science (the 3Ss) have to work together to ensure that it can be developed and applied to achieve the sustainable productivity gains that global agriculture requires.

Read the open-access report in Transgenic Research.

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