This is the last issue of the year. We'll resume on January 9, 2019. 




A new study led by Logan Kistler, curator of archaeobotany and archaeogenomics at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History reveals that while maize originated from Mexico with the domestication of the ancient grass teosinte, the trajectory of teosinte's evolution may be more complex than previously thought.

The study analyzed the genomes of more than 100 varieties of modern maize and 11 ancient plants. The researchers discovered several distinct lineages, each with their own unique relationship to teosinte. The results also revealed that although maize domestication began with a single large gene pool in Mexico, the grain was carried elsewhere before the domestication process was complete.

According to the study, there was a major wave of "proto-corn" movement from Mexico to South America, where the domesticated maize landed in the southwest Amazon, a hotspot for the domestication of other plants, including rice, squash, and cassava. Kistler said that it is possible, though not certain, that maize in this new location evolved more quickly than maize in the center of domestication. After incubating in southwest Amazon for several thousand years, maize moved to the eastern Amazon. The researchers also discovered that modern maize from the Andes and southwestern Amazon is closely related to maize grown in eastern Brazil, pointing to another eastward movement.

Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a plant scientist at the University of California, Davis said that the team's work shows how maize continued to evolve after it arrived in South America. "While not a second domestication per se, it does highlight that South American maize has undergone a considerable amount of adaptation somewhat independently of maize in Mexico," he adds.

For more details, read the news release from the Smithsonian.

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Rwanda women scientists have applauded effective science communication as key to ensuring smallholder farm families appreciate the role of advanced biosciences in addressing food insecurity, malnutrition, and environmental conservation. This came up during a series of stakeholder experience-sharing sessions on contributions of agricultural biotechnology in transforming African agriculture. Lessons learned over 22 years of adoption indicate benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment with more than 10% of arable land under biotech crops. Dr Marie-Christine Gasingirwa, Higher Education Council and formerly Director General for Science, Technology and Research in the Ministry of Education in Rwanda said the country is at a vantage position to tap into regional experiences from neighboring countries instead of re-inventing the wheel. Acknowledging the primary role of women in raising awareness about scientific innovations from family, school, and the community, she encouraged the women scientists to increase interaction with stakeholders to correct long-held myths and misinformation about modern biotechnology. "Together as women in bioscience, let's start from what is working, while enhancing the capacity of our researchers to develop relevant GM crops as regulators conduct risk assessment on biodiversity and biosafety in general," she advised. 

Researchers from Rwanda Agricultural Board informed participants that the Government has commissioned a feasibility study to fully map out appropriate areas for biotech application including agriculture, health, and animal biotechnology. They called on partnerships for strengthening their research and communication skills in readiness for full implementation of the biotechnology program once the studies are completed. The biosafety focal point from Rwanda Environment Management Authority Emmanuel Kabera assured the researchers of government's commitment to facilitate agri-biotech research even as the Biosafety Bill enactment process awaits parliamentary approval. The biotech sensitization sessions took place in Kigali on December 11-13, 2018 and were facilitated by the US Embassy in partnership with ISAAA AfriCenter under the African Women for Biosciences (AWfB) platform and co-supported by the Ram and Rashmi Charitable Foundation of the St. Louis Community Foundation.

For more information on the events, contact: Dr. Margaret Karembu, chair, African Women for Biosciences at and Dr. Marie-Christine Gasingirwa at

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A study conducted at the Iowa State University analyzed dozens of previous scientific studies on the safety of Bt corn and provides an overview of the risk assessment process applied to genetically modified (GM) crops.

Walter Suza, an adjunct assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State and a co-author of the study, said that Bt corn could help farmers in Africa to combat an emerging pest capable of devastating their crops, but fear of GM crops has slowed adoption of the technology in the continent. He cites the problem of fall armyworm, an emerging pest spreading rapidly though Africa. He said Bt corn could help fight the pest immediately, while developing resistance through traditional plant breeding will take years. The review found that delaying the adoption of GM crops such as Bt corn in the developing world presents risks to both humans and the environment.

The paper published in the journal Global Food Security upholds the conclusion that GM crops are safe for humans and the environment, and that risks associated with GM crops have proven to be low to non-existent. It concludes that GM technologies can be used to develop stress-tolerant and more nutritious crop varieties, and to protect natural resources and human health. It also states that while each new GM product is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, approved commercial products, such as those containing Bt genes, have been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny. GM traits, including but not limited to plant-incorporated Bt protection, should be considered as a tool for improving crop yields, food safety, and income for food-insecure farmers.

For more details, read the news from Iowa State University. The open access paper is available at Global Food Security.

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Researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), have discovered a way to make rice plants replicate through seeds as clones. Though 400 species of wild plants produce viable seeds without fertilization, the same process has not evolved in most commercial crop species. The work led by postdoctoral researcher Imtiyaz Khanday and Venkatesan Sundaresan, professor of plant biology and plant sciences at UC Davis, is a major step forward.

The researchers discovered that the rice gene BBM1, belonging to a family of plant genes called "Baby Boom" (BBM), is expressed in sperm cells but not in eggs. After fertilization, BBM1 is expressed in the fertilized cell, but — at least initially — this expression comes from the male contribution to the genome. BBM1 switches on the ability of a fertilized egg to form an embryo.

Using gene editing, the researchers were able to prevent the plants from going through meiosis and form egg cells by mitosis, inheriting a full set of chromosomes from the mother. Then they caused these egg cells to express BBM1, which they would not normally do without fertilization. "So we have a diploid egg cell with the ability to make an embryo, and that grows into a clonal seed," Sundaresan said.

According to Sundaresan, the process has an efficiency of about 30 percent, but they hope it can be increased with more research. The approach should work in other cereal crops, which have equivalent BBM1 genes, and in other crop plants as well, Sundaresan said.

For more details, read the news release from UC Davis.

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Asia and the Pacific

The Australian Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has received a license application (DIR 166) from Queensland University of Technology to conduct a field trial of genetically modified (GM) chickpea with enhanced drought and other environmental stress tolerance.

The trial is proposed to take place between July 2019 and December 2024, on a single site with a maximum area of 3 hectares. The trial site is located in the Tablelands Regional Council in Queensland. The trial would be subject to control measures that restrict the spread and persistence of the GM plants and their introduced genetic material. The GM chickpea would not be used for human food or animal feed.

The OGTR is preparing a Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plan for the application which would be released for public comment and further advice from experts, agencies, and authorities in mid March 2019. There will be at least 30 days allowed for submission of comments.

For more information, including the notice of application, questions and answers, and summary of the license application, visit the DIR 166 page on the OGTR website.

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Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare Expert Committee announced their proposal to allow most of the genome-edited currently under development to be marketed without safety screening by the state. It is expected that the proposal that would accelerate the creation of more nutritious and improved crops.

In the draft report of the Committee, the method to destroy target genes, including livestock products and fishery products, as well as agricultural crops was excluded from the regulation such as sales. Those products cannot be distinguished from traditional breeding improvement, because it occurs also in nature and regulation is difficult. However, even in this case, they will demand for notification. Penalties such as notification contents and notification can be set in fiscal 2019. Meanwhile, the method of adding genes from the outside is subject to the same regulation as those of genetically modified foods, requiring safety review by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. Products can be marketed after passing examination.

The new regulation is applied to domestic products or imported items in the same way. Individual safety assessment will be conducted by the Foods Safety Committee of the Cabinet Department upon request of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. The final decision is expected to be released by the end of March 2019.

For more information, contact Fusao Tomita at

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If plants could talk, they would definitely say, "Touch me not!" 

Researchers from La Trobe University found that plants are highly sensitive to touch, and repeated touching could significantly affect their growth. The results are published in The Plant Journal.

La Trobe researchers, Drs. Jim Whelan and Yan Wang, revealed the results of their study, which observed the responses of Arabidopsis to various test touch stimuli. Whelan said that even the slightest touch turns on a major genetic defense response, which when repeated, slows down plant growth. "Within 30 minutes of being touched, 10 per cent of the plant's genome is altered...This involves a huge expenditure of energy which is taken away from plant growth. If the touching is repeated, then plant growth is reduced by up to 30 percent," Whelan explained.

Wang further explained that the reason behind the strong reaction of plants to touch is yet to be revealed, their research findings have led to a deeper understanding of the genetic defense mechanisms involved particularly in opening up new approaches to reducing sensitivity and optimizing growth.

Read the news release from La Trobe University.

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A study from Stockholm University reveals that special genes keep plants from withering, staying healthy despite the lack of oxygen when they are underwater for extended periods of time.

Sylvia Lindberg, professor at Stockholm University, looked at how plants become more resistant to oxygen deficiency. During this period, special genes signal danger and the plant activates other genes to help defend itself. One of these genes is PLD, which forms the enzyme phospholipase D. Until now, the key role it plays in the plants' oxygen deficiency signal systems was unknown.

Lindberg and her research team used mutant plants lacking the potentially protective gene to see how they would perform during a simulated flood. The leaves of the mutant plants turned yellow and died, meaning that the gene plays a role in keeping the plants in good condition. Some of the mutant plants produced less calcium and less phosphatidic acid, substances that signal stress in plants.

For more details, read the news releases from Stockholm University.

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A new, unprecedented study conducted by a large research consortium led by INRA reports that a diet based on MON 810 or NK603 transgenic maize does not affect the health or metabolism of rats. Under the conditions of GMO 90+1 project, the researchers did not detect any harmful effects of the MON810 and NK603 maize diets on the health and metabolism of rats, even after a lengthy exposure period.

For six months, rats were fed a diet that contains either genetically modified (GM) maize (MON 810 or NK603) or non-GM maize, in varying concentrations. Using high-throughput biology techniques, the researchers did not find any significant biological markers related to the transgenic maize diet. Neither did anatomic pathology examination reveal any alteration of the liver, kidneys, or reproductive system of the rats whose diet contained GM maize. The period of six months, which is double that of the test required by European regulations, is equivalent to one third of the average lifespan of rats.

For more details, read the press release from Inserm or read the paper's abstract in Toxicological Sciences.

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A total of six transgenic Bt cotton lines (GKsu12, GK19, MR1, GK5, 109B, and SGK1) exhibit high resistance to cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) from the seedling to boll-setting stages in bioassays with detached cotton leaves. Scientists from Nanjing Agricultural University in China conducted genetics analyses which revealed that the resistance to bollworm in these six Bt cotton lines are controlled by a pair of dominant genes, thus their resistance levels vary as well as Bt toxin content. More tests showed some populations follow the Mendelian segregation for two non-allelic genes, i.e., the inserted Bt gene in GKsu12 is non-allelic to that of SGK1, GK5, 109B, and GK19, and Bt genes in GK19 and SGK1 are likely inserted in the same or in close proximity (genetically closely linked), while some F2 produce abnormal segregation patterns, with a segregation of resistance to cotton bollworm which vary between 15:1 and 3:1, though their Bt segregation fit into 15:1 by Polymerase Chain Reaction analysis, which imply Bt gene silence in these populations. Two genes silence may occur in these populations due to the homologous sequence by crossing since the silenced individuals accounted for 1/16 of the F2 populations for allelic test. The silenced populations further showed that one of their parents all showed high resistance to bollworm.

Read the research article in Transgenic Cotton.

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New Breeding Technologies

A patent has been issued by the European Patent Office to Calyxt, Inc. which gives them permission to create gene-edited plants by the transient delivery of sequence-specific nucleases, including CRISPR-Cas9.

"Conventionally, gene editing is performed by delivering DNA to cells," says Dr. Dan Voytas, Calyxt's Chief Science Officer and University of Minnesota Professor. "The DNA encodes a nuclease, such as CRISPR-Cas9, which makes the gene edit. The problem with conventional gene editing is that DNA can integrate randomly into the genome, creating off-target effects. For example, genes can be disrupted by the incoming DNA that you didn't intend to disrupt. Calyxt has accomplished a precise method of gene editing that creates plants with the desired traits."

Calyxt has been using TALEN® in developing  better food products, but the company is continuously trying out new gene editing technologies and approaches to edit plant genes. Calyxt's intellectual property portfolio is also strengthened by having licensed from Cellectis two patents of a family claiming the uses of chimeric nucleases, such as TALEN® and CRISPR-Cas9, for gene editing in any type of cells.

Read the media release from Calyxt.

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Glutinous cytoplasmic male sterile (CMS) line is vital for the selection of hybrid glutinous rice combination with high yield and quality. To develop glutinous CMS with low amylose content, researcher Xin Wang and team knocked out the granule-bound starch synthase OsWaxy in 209B using CRISPR-Cas9-mediated genome editing technology and successfully obtained a glutinous maintainer line WX209B. 

When compared with maintainer line 209B, WX209B exhibited reduced amylose contents and similar agronomic characteristics. After one generation of hybridization and two generations of backcrossing with WX209B as the male parent and 209A as the female parent, the glutinous CMS line WX209A was successfully achieved. 

The results of the study provide a strategy to efficiently breed for the glutinous cytoplasmic male sterile line by combining CRISPR-Cas9-mediated gene editing technology with conventional backcross breeding method in a short period, which prepares the ground for further breeding of hybrid glutinous rice variety.

Read the research article from Czech Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Researchers have developed genetically modified (GM) pigs that are resistant to the classical swine fever virus (CSFV), a widespread, highly contagious, often fatal disease that causes significant economic losses. The study, led by Hongsheng Ouyang and colleagues from Jilin University, is published in the open-access journal PLOS Pathogens.

The researchers investigated the biology of CSFV extensively, as there is an urgent need to develop effective approaches to eradicate CSFV. Ouyang and colleagues generated CSFV-resistant pigs by combining the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 with RNA interference (RNAi), a technique that silences gene expression.

The researchers showed that the GM pigs could effectively limit the replication of CSFV and reduce CSFV-associated clinical signs and mortality. Disease resistance could also be stably transmitted to first-generation offspring. Currently, the researchers are conducting long-term studies to monitor the safety and effectiveness of this approach as these animals age.

For more details, read the open access paper in PLOS Pathogens.

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Document Reminders

A total of 24 countries planted 189.8 million hectares of biotech crops in 2017, the 22nd year of global commercialization of biotech crops. Download the ISAAA infographics for more information.

Dr. Kevin Folta interviewed Dr. Thomas Zinnen for Talking Biotech Podcast. Dr. Zinnen from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service shared his thoughts on communication with the public, along with some excellent examples of how to get non-scientists to implement scientific reasoning. Listen to the Podcast in Genetic Literacy Project.

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