Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and University of North Carolina (UNC) developed a catalog of bacterial genomes to help other researchers identify and characterize candidate genes that aid bacteria in thriving in plant environments, especially those involved in bacterial root colonization.

"If we want to engineer the right microbiome to support plant growth, we need to understand the real function of the microbiome and not just sequence marker genes," said study co-first author Asaf Levy, a research scientist at the JGI. "Here we used a massive genomic and computational effort to address the fundamental and important question: ‘How does the plant microbiome interact with the plant?'"

Scientists from various institutions have previously isolated novel bacterial from root environment of  Brassicaceae (191), poplar trees (135), and maize (51). The genomes of these 377 bacterial isolates, plus an additional 107 single bacterial cells from roots of Arabidopsis, were then sequenced, assembled, and annotated at the JGI. Then the JGI and UNC researchers combined the new genomes with publicly available genomes that represent the major types of plant-linked bacteria as well as those from non-plant environments. The combined data led to the formation of the database with 3,887 genomes, wherein 1,160 were from plants.

Read the media release of JGI for more details.

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The USDA FAS Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) released updates on the status of agricultural biotechnology in Mozambique.

According to the report, Mozambique has planted the first field trial of biotech corn in the Chókwè District of Gaza Province in February 2017. The field trial is part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program. Results of the field trial are expected to be released in 2018. This is the first biotech crop field trial after the biosafety regulation of the country was updated in late 2014. 

Read the GAIN report from USDA FAS.

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To learn how the potato was domesticated, and how its DNA evolved over time, a team of researchers from the United States conducted a plant genome project to understand the crop's domestication and identified potential genes to improve on in the future.

The team examined wild and cultivated potato species, including those found in South American markets, domestic North American varieties, and landraces, which are cultivated potatoes analogous to heirloom breeds.

A change that accompanied the domestication process is reduced pollen fertility. While some wild species must be fertile to disperse seeds, cultivated species grow from tubers. The team aligned genomes of each potato they studied to the "doubled monoploid" (DM) potato. The tuber's relative genetic simplicity compared to commercial potatoes made it easier to sequence using available next generation sequencing technology. Understanding the tuber's genetic blueprint could help growers transition to a successful breeding scheme that will produce desirable varieties.

For more information, read the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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Has the last century of hybridization to increase yields changed the corn plant's ability to adjust to new or stressful situations? University of Wisconsin Professor of Agronomy Natalia de Leon, along with her student Joe Gage and colleagues, hoped to answer this question.

Their study results suggest that by intensively breeding for yield, corn breeders have limited the pool of possibilities for future North American corn hybrids, thus creating a smaller universe of available hybrids adaptable in responding to stresses like drought or pests.

The research team collected data from a massive Genomes to Fields (G2F) field trial including more than 850 unique corn hybrids at 21 locations across North America. They measured traits like yield and plant height while recording weather conditions and found that regions of the corn genome that have undergone a high degree of selection have reduced capacity to respond to variable environments than genomic regions that weren't directly acted on by breeders. This indicates that breeders need to develop new hybrids that acclimate to new or changing locations in the same area.

For more details, read the Iowa Corn Growers Association News.

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The Society of Toxicology (SOT), a professional membership association of more than 8,200 scientists worldwide, has approved and released a new Issue Statement on food and feed safety related to genetically engineered (GE) crops. The Issue Statement has five key observations on safety, substantial equivalence, and labeling.

The Society affirms the safety of GE crops amidst ongoing public debate about potential adverse impacts of GE crops on human or animal health, saying that each new event has been evaluated by regulatory authorities and all necessary regulatory approvals were secured before their commercial release.

The Statement also mentioned that many GE events have achieved tremendous commercial success in the ensuing 20 years, and during that time, there has been no verifiable evidence of the potential for adverse health effects.

For more details, read the SOT Issue Statement.

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Temple University scientists recently reported the results of their study involving mice that were genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer's Disease-like neural pathology fed with canola oil. Their findings suddenly evolved into fake news stories linking Alzheimer's with canola oil consumption. 

Dr. Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, explains how sensationalist media misinterprets science transforming facts into fake news, using the canola oil study as an example.

According to Dr. Folta, the findings of the Temple University scientists do not show that canola oil causes memory problems, dementia, obesity, and Alzheimer's Disease, especially in humans. However, the contents of the press release of Temple University titled "Canola Oil Linked to Worsened Memory and Learning Ability in in Alzheimer's Disease, Temple Researchers Report," was not in line with the conclusion of the research. The press release was picked up by other news writers who published content that caused public fear towards canola oil consumption.

"It is a perfect storm for distrust. A set of experiments by competent experts, an exaggerated press release from a university communications office and runaway unfiltered media turn a modest set of results into a public health crisis. It is the perfect recipe to sprout a horrendously bogus claim from a seed of truth and a stunning example of how false information propagates and shapes food choice," Dr. Folta concluded.

Read the original article from the Genetic Literacy Project.

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Asia and the Pacific

An internatinal team of researchers successfully developed a new type of wheat that contains ten times the amount of the fiber than normal wheat, which helps improve gut health and also fights bowel cancer and Type 2 diabetes. The research team is composed of experts from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation. 

The researchers identified two particular enzymes, that when reduced in wheat, increased the amylose content. "From there, we used a conventional breeding approach, not GM techniques, and managed to increase the amylose content of wheat grain from around 20 or 30 per cent to an unprecedented 85 per cent," Dr. Ahmed Regina of CSIRO said. "This was sufficient to increase the level of resistant starch to more than 20 per cent of total starch in the grain compared to less than one per cent in regular wheat." To date, a small number of farmers in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington have harvested the high-amylose wheat for the first time.

Read more from CSIRO.

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A new study conducted by a research team from The John Innes Centre (JIC) led by Dr. Xiaoqi Feng reveals that plants have a reprogramming mechanism that allows them to maintain fitness down the generations. The team made the discovery while studying germ cells in flowering plants. Germ cells, specialized for sexual reproduction, are referred to as "immortal" because they pass genetic material through the generations.

The JIC team worked with colleagues from the University of Leicester to reveal for the first time the existence of DNA methylation changes in the germline of flowering plants. They also revealed that this reprogramming happens via a process known as de novo (anew) DNA methylation and its biological significance in maintaining reproductive success.

Dr. Feng explained, "Our research shows that developmentally regulated DNA methylation reprogramming can regulate plant development. Scientists have been searching for this for a long time. We show that genes can be regulated in specific cells via the de novo DNA methylation pathway, which is prevalent in many plant tissues, hence this mechanism may apply to many processes in plants."

For more details, read the JIC News and Events.

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Prof. Chong Kang and team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) reported a new mechanism for chilling tolerance in rice. The findings are reported in Developmental Cell.

In 2009, the research team had shown that overexpression of the wild rice gene OrbHLH2 improved tolerance to osmotic stress in Arabidopsis. In their recent study, they discovered that the cold-activated protein kinase OsMAPK3 phosphorylates the transcription factor OsbHLH002/OsICE1 directly to enhance its transactivation activity. Furthermore, OsMAPK3 weakened the interaction between OsbHLH002 and E3 ubiquitin ligase OsHOS1, which led to decreased ubiquitination and degradation of OsbHLH002.

The boost in protein content and transactivation activity of OsbHLH002 turned on the expression of OsTPP1 (encoding trehalose-6-phosphatase) to bring about the hydrolysis of trehalose-6-phosphate, increasing the trehalose content and improving the chilling tolerance of rice.

For more information, read the news release from CAS and the research article in Developmental Cell.

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Water deficit severely reduces apple growth and production and is detrimental to fruit quality and size. Thus, water-efficiency became the major target for apple breeding. Aquaporins control water transport across membranes and can regulate water flow by changing their amount and activity. The exploration of molecular mechanism of water efficiency will pave a way for breeding of drought tolerant apple trees.

Lin Wang of China Agricultural University, together with a team of researchers, focused on an apple (Malus domestica) drought inducible aquaporin gene, MdPIP1;3. The team expressed MdPIP1;3 gene in tomato. The transgenic tomatoes exhibited enhanced drought stress tolerance, indicating that water loss rate in transgenic leaves was slower than wild types.

The lengths and diameters of the transgenic tomato fruits increased faster that the wild types. Final fruit sizes and fresh weights of the transgenic tomatoes were also bigger and higher than wild types. In cell levels, fruit cell size from transgenic tomatoes was also larger.

Expressing MdPIP1;3 enhanced drought tolerance of transgenic tomatoes, partially by reducing water loss in leaves. The transgenic tomato fruits were also larger and heavier due to larger cells via more efficient water transport across membranes.

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

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Alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) is an important legume forage crop with great economic value. However, the growth of alfalfa is seriously affected by an inadequate supply of water, making drought the major abiotic environmental factor that affects alfalfa production. To enhance alfalfa drought tolerance, Guangshun Zheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences overexpressed the Arabidopsis Enhanced Drought Tolerance 1 (AtEDT1) gene into alfalfa via Agrobacterium-mediated transformation.

Drought stress treatment resulted in higher survival rates and biomass, as well as reduced water loss in transgenic plants. Furthermore, transgenic alfalfa plants had increased stomatal size, but reduced stomatal density, contributing to the reduced water loss. Moreover, the transgenic  plants exhibited larger root systems with larger root lengths, root weight, and root diameters than wild type alfalfa plants.

The transgenic alfalfa plants had reduced membrane permeability and enhanced expression of drought-responsive genes compared to wild types. In field trials, the plants grew better and showed enhanced growth performance with increased biomass.

Expression of AtEDT1 improved the growth and enhanced drought tolerance in alfalfa. This study provides new alfalfa germplasm for use in forage improvement programs, and may help increase alfalfa production in arid lands.

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

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New Breeding Technologies

Plant annexins are calcium ion-dependent proteins and exist as multigene families in plants. They are involved in the regulation of plant development as well as protection from environmental stresses.

Chunxiu Shen of Hunan Hybrid Rice Research Center in China aimed to study the rice annexin gene OsAnn3 and its role in cold tolerance of rice (Oryza sativa). The team knocked-out the annexin gene via the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technique. Mutant plantlets were then successfully obtained. The T1 mutant lines were then screened for cold tolerance phenotypes using the 4∼6°C for 3 days cold treatment.

The results showed that the survival ratio of T1 mutant lines was decreased dramatically compared with the wild type under cold treatment. These results suggest that the OsAnn3 gene is involved in cold tolerance in rice.

For information, read the article in Journal of Plant Biology.

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Daniel Rodríguez-Leal, a 2016 Pew Latin American fellow, and Zachary Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory used CRISPR genome-editing technology to modify the sequences within the promoter of genes that are important to tomato yield. The study could provide a catalog of beneficial plant variants that growers could use to easily choose the best growth traits and adjust them during future growing seasons.

Through minimal modifications in the promoters, the researchers rapidly generated several versions that are vital in the overall production of tomatoes, including plant architecture and shape as well as fruit size. Through the use of CRISPR to modify the promoters instead of the genes, they were able to fine-tune the output of yield genes. For instance, the researchers observed how overall yield changed as a result of changing the number of floral organs and locules (the gelatinous seed cavities within the tomato), which can determine just how big the fruit will grow.

Read the media release from The Pew Charitable Trusts for more information.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have engineered plants that give off dim light. The MIT team used luciferase, the enzyme that gives fireflies their glowing light. Luciferase acts on the molecule luciferin, causing it to emit light. Another molecule called co-enzyme A helps the process by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity.

These three components were packed into a different type of nanoparticle carrier. The nanoparticles help each component to get to the specific part of the plant, and also prevent the components from reaching concentrations that could be toxic to plants.

The researchers used silica nanoparticles to carry luciferase, and used slightly larger particles of the polymers PLGA and chitosan to carry luciferin and coenzyme A, respectively. The plants were immersed in the solution and then exposed to high pressure, allowing the particles to enter the leaves through the stomata.  Early efforts at the start of the project yielded plants that could glow for about 45 minutes, which has since improved to 3.5 hours.

For more details, read the MIT News.

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Document Reminders

ISAAA releases an additional set of four countries to the series Biotech Country Facts and Trends. The new set includes the four industrial countries in the 18 biotech mega-countries in 2016 that grew 50,000 hectares, or more, of biotech crops: United States of America, Canada, Australia, and Spain.

Biotech Country Facts and Trends are concise summaries highlighting the commercialization of biotech crops in specific countries. Data on biotech crop commercialization (area and adoption), approvals and planting, benefits and future prospects for each country are presented in a brief and easily understandable manner. The contents are based on ISAAA Brief 52, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016.

The Biotech Country Facts and Trends are available for download from the ISAAA website.

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