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Global

Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) is conducting a series of teachers' training workshops this year to create and increase countrywide appreciation of integration of biosciences in the country's formal education system.

The workshops are envisioned as important opportunities for the teachers to get acquainted with the modern agricultural biotechnology work going on at various institutes of National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), and interact with different scientists/experts. It is expected that they will pass on the knowledge to their students and communities.

The workshops will also consolidate the positive impact created by UBIC's flagship annual national biotech essay contests in Uganda's formal education system. Teachers have large audiences in their schools and societies and thus are key potential champions to increase community awareness and appreciation of modern biotechnology. The workshops involve presentations on modern biosciences and biosafety research and development at NARO, tips for effective science communication, lab and field tours and networking sessions.

The latest workshop was attended by teachers from schools countrywide, NARO scientists and guests from Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB), and the National Curriculum Development Center (NCDC). Workshop attendees were exposed to the modern agricultural biotech research on-going at NARO. They also had an opportunity to do hands-on experiments in the laboratory to boost their biosciences knowledge and help improve practical science teaching. Discussions addressed pressing concerns on modern ag-biotech.

For more details, send an e-mail to ubic.nacrri@gmail.com.

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For the first time ever, an international team of scientists from Brazil, the United States, and Germany has created a new crop from a wild plant within a single generation using the modern genome editing process CRISPR-Cas9.

The team used Solanum pimpinellifolium as the parent plant species, a wild tomato relative from South America, and the progenitor of modern cultivated tomato. The wild plant's fruits are as small as the size of peas and the yield is low, but are more aromatic and contains more lycopene than modern tomatoes.

The researchers modified the wild tomato using "multiplex CRISPR-Cas9" in such a way that offspring plants bore small genetic modifications in six genes that were recognized by researchers as the genetic key to features in the domesticated tomato. The modified wild tomato bears fruits three times larger, which corresponds to the size of a cherry tomato. There is now 10 times the number of fruits, and their shape is more oval than the round wild fruit. This property is popular because, when it rains, round fruits split open faster than oval fruits. Another important new property is that the lycopene content in the new tomato is more than twice as high as in the wild parent.

For more details about this research, read the news release from the University of Münster.

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Americas

Plant cells identify pathogens and react to them by producing a burst of reactive oxygen, which is toxic to bacteria or fungi. Cells around an infected site will then go into programmed cell death to seal off the disease. A research team from University of California, Davis (UC Davis) has now identified a key step in how plant cells respond to pathogens and identified a family of kinase enzymes that activate the enzymes that make reactive oxygen.

The UC Davis team has now isolated an enzyme, SIK1, in Arabidopsis that is considered the "firing pin" of plant immunity. SIK1 connects the receptors which detect pathogens to the reactive oxygen that kills them. The researchers found that when SIK1 was deleted, the plants were unable to make enough reactive oxygen and were more susceptible to infections. The team is now looking for homologs of SIK1 in crop plants. They want to know if the gene can be tuned up to boost resistance to pathogens in crops, leading to new treatments for plant diseases and breeding of crops that are more resistant to infections.

More details in the UC Davis Blogs.

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Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory discovered how a sugar-signalling molecule helps control oil production in plant cells. The results, published in The Plant Cell journal could provide new strategies to engineer plants to produce large amounts of oil for biofuels and other oil-based products.

A previous study by John Shanklin and team at Brookhaven Lab showed a clear connection between a protein complex called KIN10 which senses sugar levels in plant cells and another protein (WRINKLED1) that serves as the switch for oil production. Using the previous study's findings, the researchers demonstrated that combinations of genetic variants can be used to boost sugar production in the leaves to drive up oil production.

"By measuring the interactions among many different molecules, we determined that the sugar-signaling molecule, T6P, binds with KIN10 and interferes with its interaction with a previously unidentified intermediate in this process, known as GRIK1, which is needed for KIN10 to tag WRINKLED1 for destruction. This explains how the signal affects the chain of events and leads to increased oil production," Shanklin said. "It's not just sugar but the signaling molecule that rises and falls with sugar that inhibits the oil shut-off mechanism," he added.

Read the news release from Brookhaven National Lab.

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An international team of researchers discovered that the gene FT, which controls the transition to flowering during spring, could alter the behavior of Arabidopsis plants in natural environments. The results published in Nature Plants have implications for the artificial growing conditions scientists usually apply in the lab.

The researchers, led by Takato Imaizumi from the University of Washington, reported that FT has a peak of activity in the morning, leading up to the transition to flowering, which was not observed previously in Arabidopsis. The morning peak of activity of FT leads the plants to transition earlier from vegetative growth to flowering.

"Previous research on FT activity in Arabidopsis showed that there is a peak of activity in the evening, not the morning," said Imaizumi. "We show definitively that there is a peak of morning activity — and we think we know why this morning peak was not seen previously in the research laboratory," she explained.

Read more from the University of Washington.

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The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a science and technology think tank, filed a Citizen Petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of non-GMO labels. The group claims that the non-GMO label "deceives consumers through false and misleading claims about foods, food ingredients and their health and safety characteristics." ITIF Senior Fellow Val Giddings also said that such labels, initiated by the Non-GMO Project, is an act of misbranding under the law, thus they are calling on the FDA to act against the confusion spread by these false claims.

Read the Citizen Petition for more details.

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Asia and the Pacific

An international research team has found that they can increase the productivity of maize by targeting the enzyme in charge of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Dr. Robert Sharwood from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis at The Australian National University (ANU), said they developed a transgenic maize that produces more Rubisco, the main enzyme involved in photosynthesis. The result is a plant with improved photosynthesis and hence, growth, Sharwood added.

Through photosynthesis, plants capture CO2 from the atmosphere, but not all plants do it in the same way. Wheat and rice use the C3 photosynthetic path, while maize and sorghum use the more efficient C4 path. In C4 plants, Rubisco works faster and they are more tolerant to heat and drought through better water use efficiency.

Co-researcher David Stern from the Boyce Thompson Institute, an affiliate of Cornell University, said they found that if they boost Rubisco inside the maize cells, crop productivity increases.

For more details, read the news release from ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.

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Around 160 participants composed of farmers, members, and officials of selected municipalities in Camarines Sur, and representatives from the academe and non-government organizations were informed on the science of biotechnology, food and environmental safety of genetically modified (GM) crops, biotech products in the pipeline, and the existing biosafety regulatory guidelines in the Philippines during the Biotechnology 101 and Joint Department Circular (JDC) Public Briefing held at Villa Caceres Hotel in Naga City, Camarines Sur on September 26, 2018.

Scientists from the University of the Philippines Los Baños - Institute of Plant Breeding (UPLB-IPB) and the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) as well as representatives from the departments involved in the implementation of the JDC (Agriculture, Science and Technology, Interior and Local Government, and Environment and Natural Resources) were present to discuss the topics and address questions from the participants.

During the open forum, the farmers expressed interest and anticipation on the availability of biotech crops, particularly Bt eggplant. Several farmers asked if they can be trained as seed growers. Members of the Bt eggplant project team assured the farmers that Bt eggplant seeds will be available to them at a nominal price once the crop is commercialized and that trainings on the cultural management of the crop will be in place. The participants were also concerned about the status of Golden Rice, the compatibility of Bt crops with organic farming, and the potential impacts of Bt crops on their income and yield.

The activity, which is the first in a series of public briefings scheduled this year, was organized by ISAAA, Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Program Office, and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture – Biotechnology Information Center (SEARCA BIC) in coordination with the Central Bicol State University of Agriculture (CBSUA).

For more updates about biotech news in the Philippines, visit the SEARCA BIC website.

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Europe

Spain is the biggest importer of grain driven by its high demand for livestock feeds. It is also one of the two countries in the EU adopting biotech crops. The International Grains Council (IGC) released a forecast that Spain's total 2018-19 grains production is estimated at 21.7 million tonnes, up from 15.8 million in 2017-18. Spain grows Bt maize on a relatively large scale and according to IGC, maize production is expected to rise to 4.4 million tonnes from 3.7 million in 2017-18.

"Spain is the largest grower of Bt corn in the E.U.-28 and has traditionally defended a science-based approach to agricultural biotechnology decisions," the report said. "In Spain, GE corn plantings have coexisted with conventional corn since 1998."

The report also mentioned that Spanish farmers can decide to grow biotech or conventional crops based on market conditions. Almost all feed on the market has a default label saying ‘contains GE products.'

Read the summary of the IGC report and the article from World Grain for more information.

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A research team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) has discovered that UV-B can be a powerful inducer of flowering, but that a protein called RUP2 blocks their action to prevent early flowering. Photoperiodic flowering depends on changes in daylength. Some plants flower when the days are longer, others do when the days are shorter. The perception of the length of the day by plants is essential to control the onset of flowering in natural ecosystems and to ensure successful reproduction.

Flowering mechanisms were studied in Arabidopsis, which flowers in Switzerland mainly in May, when the days get longer. The research was mostly done in growth chambers where the artificial light does not include UV-B. The researchers then included this type of radiation, since plants possess UV-B receptors. Together with researchers from the universities of Lausanne, Tübingen, and the Helmholtz Zentrum München in Neuherberg (Germany), the biologists showed that UV-B rays can potentially induce flowering of Arabidopsis throughout the year. "However, their effect is blocked during short days by a protein called RUP2," explains Adriana Arongaus, researcher in the Geneva group and first author of the study.

The researchers analyzed the molecular mechanisms at work. They found that UV-B can stimulate FT protein, the flowering hormone, regardless of the season. RUP2, in turn, indirectly inhibits the production of this hormone, and thus represses flowering. However, when the days lengthen, photoreceptors in the leaves induce FT proteins and flowering starts despite the presence of RUP2. This changing balance over the seasons allows the implementation of a photoperiodic flowering, with RUP2 as the central actor.

For more details, read the UNIGE press release.

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The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) GMO Panel has released the risk assessment of new sequencing information on genetically modified (GM) soybean BPS‐CV127‐9.

The GMO Panel has previously assessed GM soybean BPS‐CV127‐9 and found it to be as safe and nutritious as its conventional counterpart and commercial soybean varieties with respect to potential effects on human and animal health and the environment in the context of its intended uses. EFSA was requested by the European Commission to analyze new nucleic acid sequencing data and updated bioinformatics data for GM soybean BPS‐CV127‐9 and to indicate whether the previous conclusions of the GMO Panel on safety of GM soybean BPS‐CV127‐9 remain valid.

According to EFSA, with the exception of bioinformatics analyses, the studies performed for the risk assessment of the single event soybean BPS‐CV127‐9 remain valid. The new sequencing data and the bioinformatics analyses performed on the new sequence did not give rise to safety issues. Therefore, EFSA concludes that the original risk assessment of soybean BPS‐CV127‐9 remains valid.

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

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Research

The night-time stomatal opening and CO2 uptake and fixation characteristics of Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) plants are desirable traits that can be transferred to confer drought tolerance to C3 plants, such as rice, wheat, potatoes, and beans. Protein kinases (PKs) play important roles in these processes. However, only a few PKs have been studied.

Scientist Zong-Ming Cheng from Nanjing Agricultural University and colleagues performed RNA data analysis to identify and characterize PKs in pineapple. They further identified PKs involved in CAM photosynthesis. Results showed 758 identified PK genes, which were classified into 20 groups and 116 families based on domain sequences. Gene duplication and alternative splicing, which function in stress response, were found. Significant results include PKs expressed differently in the leaves from other tissues and PKs expressed at different times of the day. These PKs may have roles in CAM photosynthesis.

For more information, read the article in BMC Plant Biology.

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Papaya is a fruit crop rich in nutrients and papain, a digestive enzyme widely used in industrial applications. It confers drought tolerance, a trait that has not been investigated in the fruit crop. Researcher Luis Carlos Rodriguez-Zapata from Yucatan Center for Scientific Research, Mexico and colleagues studied the drought tolerance mechanism in papaya through RNA expression analysis.

The researchers used Illumina-Seq to analyze the RNA expression in papaya tissues, such as leaves, sap, and roots under well-watered and drought stress conditions. Results include differentially expressed genes during the experimental conditions and root and leaf transcription factors that respond during drought stress. In particular, moderate drought stress caused increased expression of genes related to cell cycle and DNA repair (leaves and sap) and genes related to abiotic stress, hormone signalling, sucrose metabolism, and suberin synthesis (roots). Severe drought stress caused increased expression of genes related to abiotic stress, hormone signalling, and oxidation-reduction. These findings will help researchers improve papaya in the future.

For more information, read the article in Scientific Reports.

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New Breeding Technologies

Scientists continuously try to improve the efficiency of CRISPR-Cas9 system by focusing on the transcriptional level. By contrast, researcher Jian-Kang Zhu from Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues try improving the system by focusing on the post-transcriptional level. They induced the expression of p19 protein and silence the AGO1 protein related in RNA interference. They found improved expression of CRISPR-Cas9 components and different symptom severity in the tested plants.

Higher expression of CRISPR-Cas9 components allows higher gene editing frequency, reducing the cost of producing mutants for screening. Moreover, selection through the naked eye also reduces the cost of selecting mutated plants through other molecular techniques. Overall, the system provides practicality in increasing gene expression and selecting transgene-free CRISPR-Cas9-edited plants in the first and second generations by naked-eye observation of symptom severity. 

For more information, read the article in BMC Genome Biology.

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Tiller number is important in rice yield, as it projects the number of panicle that will be produced by the plant. Through overexpression and knock-out experiments, researcher Zhongming Fang from Huazhong Agricultural University and colleagues found that gene OsAAP3 significantly controls tillering number and outgrowth bud formation in rice.

OsAAP3 is a gene coding for an amino acid transporter, which is important in delivering nutrients such as inorganic nitrogen to different parts of the plant. OsAAP3 transports Ser, Met, Lys, Leu, His, Gln, Arg, Ala, and Gly from source to sink organs of the plant. Overexpressing the gene showed decreased tillering in Japonica rice. By contrast, knocking out OsAAP3 using CRISPR-Cas9 boosted the yield and outgrowth bud formation in rice. Overall, the inhibition of OsAAP3 expression may be used in boosting yield and nitrogen use efficiency in rice.

For more information, read the article in Plant Biotechnology Journal

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Wheat is recalcitrant to tissue culture, hindering its genetic improvement through transformation. Consequently, it cannot be improved through gene editing, which also requires transformation and tissue culture regeneration. To solve this problem, researcher Ryozo Imai from National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Japan and colleagues use gene gun to transiently express CRISPR-Cas9 vector in wheat.

The researchers target the shoot apical meristem of mature wheat embryos for gene gun transformation. PCR screening was done to determine if the seeds were transformed. Afterwards, the seeds were germinated. Results show successful transformation of 5 percent of the seeds. Though low in efficiency, this method poses advantages as follows: 

  • Experiments can be done using mature embryos;
  • Antibiotic selection is unnecessary; and
  • RNA can also be introduced through a gene gun.

For more information, read the article in Scientific Reports

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You might not have heard -- or tasted -- the groundcherry, but this could soon change. The Van Eck Laboratory headed by Joyce Van Eck at Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) has presented their research on this crop which could make groundcherries a common household name thanks to the genome editing tool CRISPR.

The groundcherry (Physalis pruinosa) is approximately the same size as a cherry tomato, but has a much sweeter flavor and is a powerhouse of nutritional value. Packed with Vitamin C, Vitamin B, beta-carotene, phytosterols, and antioxidants, plus anti-inflammatory and medicinal properties, this tiny fruit might just be the next superfood.

To improve the groundcherry's yield and weedy growth habit, Van Eck and her collaborator, Zach Lippman, at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory hypothesized that groundcherry genes could be modified for immediate improvements. Genetic alterations led to changes in the hormone that regulates flowering, producing plants which are more compact with fruit in clusters. They also targeted ways to increase fruit size and weight through a CRISPR-generated mutation, leading to 50 percent more fruit along a given stem and more seedy sections in each fruit.

For more details, read the BTI news article.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Scientist Andrea Crisanti from Imperial College London in the United Kingdom and colleagues edit the doublesex gene in the mosquito malaria vector Anopheles gambiae using CRISPR-Cas9

Through the disruption of intron 4 to exon 5 of the gene, the female version of the gene was not produced, thus conferring sterility. This edited gene was introduced to a population of caged mosquitoes through a construct and spread rapidly among the population. After seven to eleven generations, egg production reduced progressively, and the occurrence of the edited gene among the population reached 100 percent. Variants of the gene were also found in the population, but did not affect the spreading of the edited gene. Total population collapse was observed in the experiment, emphasizing the significant role of gene editing in controlling malaria in countries such as Africa.

For more information, read the article in Nature Biotechnology.

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