In This Issue

January 17, 2018

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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

Global food prices decreased in December 2017, led by sharp declines for vegetable oils and dairy products, according to the latest Food Price Index issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The Report revealed that the FAO Vegetable Oil Price Index declined by 5.6 percent from November, as palm oil prices tumbled amid swelling stocks in Malaysia and Indonesia. This also influenced the decrease in soybean oil prices. On the other hand, the FAO Cereal Price Index remained broadly stable for the third consecutive month, with international wheat prices weakening while those of maize and rice firming up. The Index was 3.2 percent higher over 2017 than in 2016, while still 37 percent below its 2011 peak.

Read more from FAO.

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Americas

Northern corn leaf blight causes major yield losses if not detected and treated early. Resistance genes have been identified in corn, but the fungal disease has found ways to sneak around the plant's defenses. Now, researchers have figured out how the fungus is outsmarting corn, and this information may help corn fight back.

A new study from the University of Illinois led by plant pathologist Santiago Mideros has identified two of the genes that cause disease in corn. Several genes help corn resist different strains of northern corn leaf blight: Ht1, Ht2, Ht3, and HtN. These genes may signal proteins that protect the plant from fungus attacks, but the exact mechanism is unknown. The corn becomes susceptible again when the fungus evolves to avoid detection by the plant.

The interaction between corn and fungal genes has been known for decades, but scientists didn't know the molecular makeup of those genes in the fungus, or their location in the genome. To get this information, the research team mated different strains of the fungus and mapped the genes of the resulting progeny. They then confirmed the location for one fungal gene involved in the disease, AVRHt1, and found a candidate location for another, AVRHt2. The researchers also identified molecular markers that should make identifying disease-causing strains easier in the future.

For more information, read the news release at the ACES College News.

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The American Farm Bureau Federation's 2018 Annual Convention held in Nashville, Tennessee on January 5-10, 2018 was addressed by the US President Donald J. Trump. On January 8, the President said, "We are streamlining regulations that have blocked cutting-edge biotechnology, setting free our farmers to innovate, thrive, and to grow." His remarks were delivered to 7,400 farmers and ranchers gathered at the Convention.

President Trump signed two executive orders that fund and streamline the expansion of rural broadband access. His address decried the costs of excessive regulation, and touched on issues of particular importance to agriculturists such as regulations, labor and trade.

For more details, including a high resolution video of President Trump's address, read the news article at the AFBF Newsroom.

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Asia and the Pacific

Researchers at NRGene and Wageningen University & Research are working on creating multi-genome mapping of commercial food potatoes. Potatoes are known to be the fourth most consumed food crop globally.

Mapping the genome of potatoes is extremely difficult because it is an auto-tetraploid, wherein each potato cell contains four nearly identical copies of each chromosome and gene. To date, the researchers have completed the phased assembly of three commercial potato varieties. According to NRGene, the assembly is built of scaffolds with an N50 of 1.19 Mbp, less than 0.89% unfilled gaps, and BUSCO results of 96.25%, 86% of which are found in more than one copy.

Cracking the genomes of commercial food potatoes would help scientists develop better varieties for farmers and consumers.

Read the press release from NRGene for more details.

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The South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), New Delhi and Indian Society for Cotton Improvement (ISCI), Mumbai have released a comprehensive publication on "Cotton Pink Bollworm Management Strategy" during the program on "Management of Pink Bollworm". The event was organized by the Cotton Association of India (CAI), the apex body of cotton sector in the country on January 10, 2018 at Mumbai, Maharashtra. The cotton pink bollworm strategy is authored by Dr. CD Mayee and Bhagirath Choudhary of SABC and was released by Dr. PG Patil, Director of ICAR-Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology (CIRCOT), Mr. Atul Ganatra, President of CAI, and Sh Suresh Kotak of Kotak & Company.

Cotton growing season of 2017-18 saw an unusual outbreak of pink bollworm (Pectinophera gossypiella) - a monophagous pest, in most of the cotton growing districts of Maharashtra. The rough estimate of incidence varies from 20-60%, resulting in an estimated yield loss of 10-30% in quantity, but much more in quality produce in Kharif 2017-18 season and huge economic losses to farmers particularly in dryland areas of Maharashtra. Hence, effective control of pink bollworm in the ensuing cotton season becomes a topmost priority for all stakeholders engaged in cotton textile sector in India. The "Cotton Pink Bollworm Management Strategy" highlights the nature of the dreaded pest, its life cycle, reasons of resistance development in pink bollworm and nature of symptoms and damage and proposes, farmers' friendly & easy-to-implement, strategies for both pre-cultivation, post-planting and post-harvest of cotton.



Download a free copy of "Cotton Pink Bollworm Management Strategy" from the SABC or ISCI website. For printed copies, contact bhagirath@sabc.asia or shaikhaj@rediffmail.com.

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Scientists at the University of Queensland (UQ) got the inspiration to develop the world's first 'speed breeding' procedures from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) experiments that involved using continuous light on wheat triggering early reproduction in the plants.

Speed breeding technique which aims to cut the length of plant breeding cycles, has been used largely for research purposes, but is now being adopted by industry. UQ scientists, in partnership with Dow AgroSciences, have used the technique to develop the new ‘DS Faraday' wheat variety due for release to industry in 2018.

According to UQ Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) Senior Research Fellow Dr. Lee Hickey, DS Faraday is a high protein, milling wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting. Dr. Hickey explained that genes for grain dormancy were introduced, so it can better handle wet weather at harvest time, a problem that wheat scientists in Australia have been trying to solve for more than 40 years.

For more information, read the news releases from UQ News and QAAFI.

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Europe

Global warming has affected not only plant biodiversity, but also altered the way plants grow. A team of researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) joined forces with the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry (IPB) to discover which molecular processes are involved in plant growth at high temperatures. This could help breed plants that adapt to global warming.

Professor Marcel Quint, an agricultural scientist at MLU, explains that the correlation between temperature and plant growth at the macrolevel is relatively well understood, but there are still many open questions at the molecular level. Previous studies showed that the protein PIF4 directly controls plant growth, but this protein is also dependent on temperature. PIF4 is less active when it's cold, but at higher temperatures, PIF4 activates growth-promoting genes and the plant grows taller. Though this information is known to scientists, it had been unclear how the plant knows when to activate PIF4 and how much should be released.

This is precisely what the research group in Halle has now discovered. They investigated the growth behavior of Arabidopsis seedlings which normally form short stems at 20 degrees Celsius. In the lab, the scientists identified plants with a gene defect which still only formed short stems at 28 degrees. Then they searched for possible reasons for this lack in growth and discovered a hormone that activates the PIF4 gene at high temperatures, thus producing the protein. This reaction did not occur in the mutated plants. "We have now discovered the role of this special hormone in the signalling pathway and have found a mechanism through which the growth process is positively regulated at higher temperatures," Quint explains.

Read more about this research at the MLU website.

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Research

Ethylene-responsive factor 8 (ERF8), a member of AP2/ERF superfamily, is one of the transcription factors involved in repression of leaf senescence in plants. Leaf senescence is the final stage of leaf development and involves the mobilization of nutrients from old leaves to newly growing tissue. Regulation of leaf senescence depends on the developmental age of plants, and it is also influenced by various external stimuli.

Studies have shown that combination of ERF8 and ERF4 is key in signaling pathways related to the progression of leaf senescence. However, there were no investigations conducted specifically about ERF8. Therefore, investigating function and interaction of ERF8 is considered an effective strategy to control plant resistance against stress factors.

In a study conducted by Nguyen Thanh Huyen and colleagues, ERF8 was amplified from cDNA of Arabidopsis thaliana by Polymerase Chain Reaction, then cloned into pTZ257R/T vector. This gene then was subcloned into the expression vector pGEX-5X and expressed in Escherichia coli strain BL21. The researchers analyzed the factors and determined the optimal conditions for the expression of ERF8 protein in E. coli train BL21 (at 30oC after 3 hours induction with 0.5 mM IPTG). Finally, ERF8 recombinant protein was purified by affinity chromatography for further studies.

For more information on this study, read the original article in Vietnamese.

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Findings of a new study in sub-Saharan Africa have indicated that biofortification of beta-carotene concentrations in cassava storage roots significantly increased provitamin A in the cultivars. This may mark an important milestone in addressing the region's challenge with vitamin A deficiency. The result is published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that vitamin A deficiency is a pervasive major health issue affecting an estimated 47% of preschool children in sub-Saharan Africa. This deficiency is attributed to increased incidence of blindness and suppressed immunity leading to enhanced mortality.

The study found that storage roots from three top-performing transgenic lines grown under glasshouse conditions accumulated carotenoids of between 40 and 60 μg/g dry weight, representing a 20-to 30-fold increase, compared to roots harvested from a non-transgenic control. The study discovered that 85 to 90 per cent of these carotenoids accumulated as all-trans-β-carotene, the most nutritionally efficacious carotenoid.

Interestingly, the researchers found that accumulation of carotenoids was accompanied by a five-time reduction in postharvest physiological deterioration of storage roots suggesting that increased carotenoid concentrations prolong shelf life of harvested storage roots. The short shelf life of cassava storage roots has profoundly constrained sub-Saharan African farmers' ability to transport harvested cassava storage roots from rural production areas to urban markets limiting the plant's potential as a cash crop for most farmers in the region. 

The study also showed that cassava biofortification increases concentrations of soluble sugars and triacylglycerols but reduces starch content in the roots.

This was part of a project that drew partnership between the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the National Root Crops Research Institute to conduct the first government-approved confined field trial of a genetically modified crop in Nigeria. 

Read the research article for more details.

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The CRISPR-Cas system has been used to develop plants with resistance to DNA virus infections. However, there is no RNA virus control method in plants that uses CRISPR-Cas system to target the viral genome directly.

The team of Tong Zhang from South China Agricultural University reprogrammed the CRISPR-Cas9 system from Francisella novicida to confer molecular immunity against RNA viruses in tobacco (Nicotiana benthamiana) and Arabidopsis plants.

Plants expressing FnCas9 and the sgRNA specific for the cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) or tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) exhibited significantly less virus infection symptoms and reduced viral RNA accumulation. Furthermore, in the transgenic virus-targeting plants, the resistance was inheritable and the progenies showed significantly less virus accumulation.

These data reveal that the CRISPR-Cas9 system can be used to produce a plant with stable resistance to RNA viruses, broadening the use of this technology for virus control in agricultural field.

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

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New Breeding Technologies

In rice (Oryza sativa), the amylose content is controlled by a single dominant Waxy gene. The team of Jinshan Zhang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences used CRISPR-Cas9 to introduce a loss-of-function mutation into the Waxy gene in two widely-cultivated elite japonica varieties.

The mutations brought about by CRISPR-Cas9 in the Waxy gene reduced the amylase content of the rice, converting it into a glutinous one without affecting other desirable agronomic traits. The team was also successful in removing transgenes from the progeny of these genome-edited lines.

The success of CRISPR-Cas9 in inducing mutations in the Waxy gene of rice could offer an effective and easy strategy to improve glutinosity in elite rice varieties. This study also provides an example of generating improved crops with potential for commercialization, by editing a gene of interest directly in elite crop varieties.

For more on this study, read the article in Journal of Integrative Plant Biology.

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FRUCTOKINASE-LIKE PROTEINS (FLNs) are phosphofructokinase-B (PfkB)-type carbohydrate kinases that act as part of the PEP complex, which are known to transcribe chloroplast genes. However, the mechanisms underlying FLNs activity in rice remain elusive. Previously, the team of Lei He from China National Rice Research Institute studied a heat-stress sensitive albino mutant in rice, hsa1. Analysis of this mutant revealed that HSA1 gene encodes an OsFLN2 protein.

Using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, the team aimed to prove that knockdown or knockout of the OsFLN1, a homolog of HSA1/OsFLN2, will inhibit chloroplast biogenesis. The fln1 knockout mutants exhibited severe albino phenotype and seedling lethality. Analysis found that OsFLN1 localizes in the chloroplast and that the OsFLN1 and HSA1/OsFLN2 proteins interact with THIOREDOXINZ (OsTRXz) to regulate chloroplast development.

To prove this, OsTRXz knockout plants were developed and it resulted in similar albino and seedling lethal phenotype as the fln1 mutants.

These results show that OsFLN1 and HSA1/OsFLN2 contribute to chloroplast biogenesis and plant growth.

For more on this study, read the article in Journal of Integrative Plant Biology.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Researchers from Iowa State University developed a low-cost, easily produced, graphene-based, sensors-on-tape that can be attached to plants to provide various kinds of data to researchers and farmers.

"With a tool like this, we can begin to breed plants that are more efficient in using water," said plant scientist Patrick Schnable. "That's exciting. We couldn't do this before. But, once we can measure something, we can begin to understand it."

The tool, which is now known as "plant tattoo sensor", is making these water measurements possible, as the tiny graphene sensor can be taped on to plants. According to the lead researcher Liang Dong, the sensors are made with graphene oxide, a material that is highly sensitive to water vapor. The presence of water vapor modifies the conductivity of the material, which is quantified to accurately measure the release of water vapor from a leaf.

The plant sensors have been successfully tested in lab and pilot field experiments.

Read the original news article from Iowa State University.

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A study published in Nature Chemical Biology reports an environmentally friendly method of producing indigo dye from genetically engineered bacteria. Indigo is widely used to give denim its characteristic blue color, and this biological approach to its synthesis and application avoids the need for harsh chemicals.

Indigo is made naturally by certain plants and has been extracted for use as a blue dye for millennia. However, modern demand for the dye requires chemical synthesis at a large industrial scale. This process uses multiple hazardous chemicals, which can be harmful to the environment.

As a ‘green' approach to making indigo, John Dueber and colleagues used engineered bacteria that produce a related compound called indoxyl. Indoxyl itself is unstable, but the researchers identified an enzyme that can stabilize indoxyl by linking it to a sugar molecule. When added to bacteria, this enzyme produces indican, which can be easily isolated and kept for long-term storage. Later, at the time of dyeing, a different enzyme turns indican into the familiar indigo directly on the cloth.

For more, read the research highlight in Nature Asia.

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Document Reminders

Did you know that scientists have designed rice plants that can flower on demand? How about the study on rice enriched with antioxidant resveratrol? These are just some of the interesting news on crop biotech in 2017.

We summarized the top 10 most trending Crop Biotech Update news shared on Facebook to give you a glimpse of crop biotech happenings last year. Read the ISAAA blog now and make sure you don't miss which news made it to the top spot.

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