In This Issue

February 13, 2013

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Beyond Promises: Facts about Biotech/GM Crops in 2016
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From Fear to Facts: 17 Years of Agri-biotech Reporting in the Philippines (2000-2016)
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News

Global

An international group of scientists have sequenced the draft genome of the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis, the world's major commercial source of natural rubber. The team has identified 12.7% of H. brasieliensis' 70,000 genes as unique, and outlined those which are associated with rubber biosynthesis, rubber wood formation, disease resistance, and allergenicity.

Rubber plays an important role in the world's economy, but the industry is affected by rubber blight, increasing global medical concern about natural rubber allergenicity. The team believes that the information will lead to better understanding of the rubber tree's latex and wood production, disease resistance and allergenicity, and help speed up the development of high-yielding varieties in the future.

The abstract and a provisional PDF of the full paper is available at the BMC Genomics website: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/14/75/abstract.

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The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has agreed to partner with Global Crop Diversity Trust for the five-year CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections, a program that aims to maintain the 706,000 samples of crop, forage and agroforestry resources from the genebanks of 11 CGIAR research centers around the world.

Beyond maintaining the vitality of the existing collections, the CGIAR Consortium partnership with the Trust envisions adding some 56,000 new samples or "accessions" to the genebanks by 2015, including a large number of wild relatives of cultivated crops. Wild relatives often contain important traits, such as drought tolerance or disease resistance that can be hard to find in cultivated varieties. New plant breeding technologies are making it easier to borrow traits from distant wild relatives and use them to improve the productivity or fitness of a cultivated crop.

The new partnership between the Trust and the CGIAR Consortium will allocate the US$109 million over the next five years to fund crop preservation and collection work at the CGIAR genebanks and ensure their crop samples are still widely shared.

View CGIAR's news release at  http://www.cgiar.org/consortium-news/cgiar-consortium-partners-with-global-crop-diversity-trust-to-revitalize-genebanks/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter.

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To contribute in the world's challenge to boost food and nutrition and improve livelihoods particularly of the dryland poor, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) launched the CGIAR Research Programs on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals. The research programs, led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is the most comprehensive research-for-development (R4D) effort undertaken thus far on once ‘orphan' or neglected crops.

The CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes is a ten-year R4D program that focuses on improving chickpea, common bean, cowpea, groundnut, faba bean, lentil, pigeonpea and soybean crops grown by poor smallholder families in five target regions. It aims to benefit 300 million smallholder farm households from an average 20% yield increase in grain legumes. The CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals, on the other hand, will work on millets, sorghum, and barley to achieve an increase in farm-level crop productivity and total crop production of at least 16% in ten years.

For more information, visit http://www.cgiar.org/consortium-news/global-research-programs-on-grain-legumes-and-dryland-cereals-launched-to-boost-food-and-nutrition-security-of-the-poor/.

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Africa

The Kenya National Biosafety Authority has embarked on a series of activities to raise awareness on biotechnology and biosafety. To quick start the year, NBA held of meetings for various stakeholders in the week of 5th to 7th February 2013, where researchers, consumers, traders and media were invited to discuss issues pertaining to biosafety and biotechnology and the role of NBA in GMO commercialization in Kenya.

Speaking to a section of media and communication practitioners in Kenya, Dr. Willy Tonui, NBA chief executive officer said "Concerns on safety of GMOs are still an important topic worldwide as evidenced by public and media comments recently. Therefore, NBA has declared the year 2013 to be the national biosafety advocacy year in Kenya. This will also be our theme for the second annual biosafety conference in August."

The 2013 Year of Biosafety Advocacy supports NBA's Strategic Plan that provides a framework for implementation and coordination of Biosafety in Kenya. Advocacy efforts around 2013 will also serve to advance the NBA strategic objective of supporting Institutional capacity in Kenya. Through the Strategic Plan, the Authority strives to establish and facilitate a regulatory framework that supports scientific and socio-economic activities of GMOs at various levels in the country.

Dr. Tonui informed the participants that the authority had already established offices at the Port of Mombasa, Kenya, Tanzania border post at Namanga, as well as Busia and Malaba posts at the Kenya and Uganda border for monitoring and surveillance movement of GMOs.

For more information, please contact Dr. Tonui, Chief Executive Officer, Kenya National Biosafety Authority. Email: info@biosafetykenya.go.ke or hsang@biosafetykenya.go.ke.

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The poultry producers in Zimbabwe have appealed to the country's Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) to review the ban on the imports of genetically modified maize claiming that it severely affects the country's poultry industry. The producers said the cost of poultry production has increased because of the shortage of grain. It now costs for up to US$400 to import a ton of maize from US$120 to US$150 per ton before.

Zimbabwe requires 1,384,000 tons of maize for human consumption and 350,000 tons for livestock and other uses. During the 2011/12 cropping season, Zimbabwe produced nearly one million tons of maize--leaving a deficit of 900, 000 tons.

For more information, visit  http://allafrica.com/stories/201302080358.html.

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The Ugandan National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 has been tabled in parliament by the chairperson of the committee on science and technology, Denis Hamson Obua. The bill, whose object includes providing for development and general release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Uganda also provides for a regulatory framework to facilitate safe development and application of biotechnology. The Private Members Bill initiated by the committee further provides for a Competent Authority, whose functions, if approved, will include approving the development, testing and use of GMO in the country as well as updating the national focal point on matters relating to biotechnology and biosafety.

The Authority will also ensure necessary measures to avoid adverse effects on the environment, biological diversity, human health, and on socio-economic conditions arising from GMOs. It will further prescribe standards relating to development of GMOs, advise government on issues of biotechnology and biosafety and coordinate the roles of other lead agencies in relation to handling of GMOs.

The Bill provides for establishment of a national Biosafety Committee which shall be responsible for, among others, advising the authority as well as recommending to it, new scientific information on the subject. Among other provisions, the bill states that a person shall not engage in research or general release of GMOs without approval under the law and the penalty for a defaulter is a fine not exceeding Ugangan Shillings 960,000 or imprisonment not exceeding twenty four months or both.

To read full story, go to http://allafrica.com/stories/201302110505.html.

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Americas

Purdue University scientists will develop genomic tools needed to improve sorghum, one of Africa's important food crops. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will cover the project's first three years, which will be led by Purdue Professor Mitch Tuinstra. The project will identify sorghum gene functions, especially those important in crop yield, protein and starch digestion, and resistance to the parasitic weed Striga.

Tuinstra's team will analyze a collection of mutants created from the sorghum variety that has had its genome sequenced. From the collection, they can determine the genes for the physical attributes seen in the mutants. When genes and traits are matched, they can begin designing plants with desired characteristics.

For more information about this project, read the news release at http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2013/Q1/purdue-gets-1-million-to-improve-sorghum-research-tools.html

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Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) received a five-year, US$5 million grant from USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to enhance the genetic resistance of soybean to sudden death syndrome, a serious disease that has cost farmers millions of crop losses in the past. ISU agronomist Madan Bhattacharyya, who has studied sudden death syndrome since 2003 will lead the research team.

Sudden death syndrome first appeared in Arkansas in 1971, caused by a Fusarium fungus infecting soybean roots. Bhattacharyya said, "The disease is devastating because it begins in the root of the plant and stays in the infected roots. When the disease symptoms become visible in the leaves, it's too late and there is no effective fungicide to control the disease." His group has recently identified a small protein produced by the pathogen in the roots causing foliar soybean sudden death syndrome.

Read more about this at http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2013/02/07/soybeansd.

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Asia and the Pacific

Of the developing countries in Asia that grow biotech crops, China, India, and the Philippines have had the most extensive experience. They represent an unmatched wealth of critical information and insights towards a better understanding of the social environment that favors biotech crop adoption. Developing countries can learn from their experiences by knowing who the adoptors of biotech crops are, what factors influenced their adoption, and what significant changes have occurred in farmers' lives.

Key researchers and farmers from the three countries will present highlights of a research titled Adoption and Uptake Pathways of GM/Biotech Crops by Small-scale, Resource-poor Asian Farmers in China, India, and the Philippines in an international conference to be held April 2-3, 2013 in Manila, Philippines. The conference will be co-organized by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the John Templeton Foundation, and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).

A workshop will solicit policy recommendations to enhance biotech adoption in developing countries. The conference will also link stakeholders through a network to encourage interaction even after the event. In addition, participants will visit a biotech corn farm in Concepcion, Tarlac to enable them to interact with farmers.

Conference participants will be stakeholders in the agriculture arena represented by policy makers, scientists and researchers, science communicators, media practitioners, extension workers, and farmers from the developing countries. 

For further details about the workshop, email Dr. Mariechel Navarro at m.navarro@isaaa.org or Ms. Jenny Panopio at jap@agri.searca.org.

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Pitching for adoption of modern farm technologies for better yields, India's Agriculture Minister Mr. Sharad Pawar called for adopting scientific solutions to raise farm production at a fast pace. Addressing a conference on ‘Doubling Food Production in Five Years'.  He said that farm output could only be increased through raising crop yields of the existing cultivable area. "We should not get carried away by the misplaced apprehensions against the scientifically proven developments such as GM crops," he added.

The Minister stated that India will need to ensure sustainable agricultural growth against the backdrop of limited availability of natural resources, especially cultivable land. Acknowledging that food security is a major concern for the nation, he said that the farmers have the enormous task of feeding a billion plus population. "I am of the firm opinion that we must adopt the modern scientific solutions which are based on sound and proven practices. We also cannot afford to curtail the vigor of our scientific community if they are conducting research with all the precautions." he said.

Highlighting the role of the private sector he said "Private sector seed companies have made contributions by introducing frontier technology which has truly revolutionized yields in some crops. Further research needs to be carried forward for securing breakthroughs in yields in dry land farming conditions faced with Biotic and Abiotic stresses."

For more details visit http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=91963.

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A new monocot model plant validation system was developed by Evogene, an agbiotech company based in Israel. The new system uses Brachypodium as the model plant, and then evaluates the candidate genes for enhancing traits of interest, such as yield and tolerance to drought. The evaluation of candidate genes is important to pass proof of concept about the potential of  the genes, to continue with the experimental validation and actual performance of the prediction in plants. This new system can be used to improve varieties of important monocot plants such as wheat, corn, and rice.

Read the press release at http://www.evogene.com/News-Events/Press-Releases/2013/Evogene-Announces-Launch-of-Model-Plant-Validation-System-for-Monocot-Plants.

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Agricultural scientists in Australia have found a gene that boosts the digestibility of sorghum. The scientists said that they have identified a tiny variant in a gene which controls the enzyme pullulanase that helps to break down starch in sorghum, making it more digestible. The research team's next step would be cross-breeding commonly grown sorghum strains with the variety that has the genetic variant to boost the crop's value as a food source.

Sorghum is a tough cereal grown in dry areas of Africa, Asia, and North America. It is drought tolerant but ranks lower than rice, corn, and wheat as food because the human digestive system cannot absorb many of its calories.

More information is available at http://phys.org/news/2013-02-rubber-genome.html

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Europe

Plant flowering is affected by light and temperature, but scientists found that sufficient energy resources is also needed for the intensive process of growing flowers. The team from Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen report that the sugar molecule trehalose-6-phosphate (T6P) takes on a key role in monitoring plants' energy reserves in thale cress.

Flower formation is an energy-intensive process and this energy must be available to the plant in the form of sugar. Vanessa Wahl, lead author of the report published in Science said, "Since plants contain only minute amounts of T6P, it has been suspected that it could be a signaling molecule." Wahl and her team could delay flowering by blocking the production of T6P, or even stop the process. The process made it possible to show that T6P is indispensable for the production of flowering locus T (FT) gene.

For more details, read the news release available at http://www.mpg.de/6898274/sugar-flowering. The results of the study published in the February 8 edition of the journal Science is available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6120/704.

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Scientists from the Rothamstead Research in England will attempt to unlock plant lipid pathways to produce oils with greater nutritional potential and to help address the issues on fish stock sustainability. In their research article submitted in February's issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal, scientists describe how the emerging science of synthetic biology provides a new paradigm for plant lipid engineering. This will allow scientists to build a bespoke systems by re-designing metabolic pathways from scratch to create entirely new biosynthetic pathways de novo within cells, thereby enabling production of valuable molecules.

One of the highlight of their work is the creation of a more sustainable source of omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs), which have been strongly linked with improved cardiovascular health and cognitive development. Along with the nutrition and health benefits, the production of plant-based methods to produce LC-PUFAs may also help to reduce the problems in aquaculture who have to turn to less sustainable sources of LC-PUFAs in fishmeal, as sea stocks of oily fish deplete. Current plant sources do not provide the right type of LC-PUFAs in the right quantities that are bioavailable to humans.

View Rothamstead Research's news release at http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/PressReleases.php?PRID=216. Access the journal article at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pbi.12012/pdf.

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Research

Scientists have expressed the genes from common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis in chickpea to produce toxins that makes the plant resistant to pod borer (Helicoverpa armiegera). However, some researchers perceive that the acidic exudates in chickpea leaves may affect the conversion of protoxin to toxin in the insect midgut, which can lead to the reduction of toxin effectiveness. Thus, V. Surekha Devi from the International Crops Institute of the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and colleagues investigated the effect of organic acids (oxalic acid and malic acid) from chickpea on the activity and binding of Bt toxin Cry1Ac to brush border membrane vesicles (BBMV) in the midgut of the pod borer.

Results showed that the organic acids in amounts present in the chickpea leaves had no effect on the biological activity of the Bt toxin towards pod borer larvae. When the amount of organic acids were increased, the concentration of Bt toxin was decreased in the midgut of the larvae. Larval weights were also noted to be reduced when they were fed with diets containing organic acid, with or without the presence of Bt toxin.

Read the abstract at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022191013000255

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Cotton is a commercially important fiber crop used as a major source of natural textile fiber and cottonseed oil. Among the four cultivated species, Gossypium hirsutum represents over 95% of the cultivated cotton worldwide whereas the other three species, G. barbadense, G. arboreum and G. herbaceum together represent the remaining 5%. Cotton fibers are single-celled seed trichomes that develop from the ovule epidermal cells. About 30% of the seed epidermal cells differentiate into spinnable fibers. Scientists at National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology and International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi have unraveled the genes involved in fiber development in cotton.

The scientists carried out transcriptomic and proteomic analysis to compare the expression of genes and proteins in cotton ovules covering fiber initiation to secondary cell wall synthesis stages in normal cotton and lintless mutant of cotton and identified a set of genes closely associated with fiber development. This landmark study will help cotton biotechnologists and breeders to manipulate and breed cotton for fiber quality, quantity and strength.

Read the research article at: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/13/624

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Scientists reported that a genetically engineered virus tested in 30 terminally-ill liver cancer patients significantly prolonged their lives, killing tumors and inhibiting growth of new ones. The vaccine Pexa-Vec, or JX-594 has been engineered from the vaccinia virus, which has been used as vaccine for decades.

The report in the journal Nature Medicine said that 16 patients who received high dose of the therapy survived for 14.1 months on average, while the rest who were given a low dose survived for 6.7 months. Pexa-Vec treatment at both doses showed reduction of tumor size and decreased blood flow to tumors.

Read the news release at http://medicalxpress.com/news/2013-02-genetically-virus-cancer.html. The abstract and author information is available at Nature Medicine: http://www.nature.com/nm/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nm.3089.html#/abstract.

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Biotechnology students at Williams Field High School in Arizona, USA under the Career and Technical Education class have made a breakthrough that is usually accomplished by professional scientists. The students used scientific techniques and lab equipment to crack the genome of Mexican paloverde tree, and isolated the gene that helps organisms burn sugar for energy (glycolysis).

The students mapped the genome of the tree, and once published, it can be used by researchers to develop more ways to treat diseases such as diabetes and obesity. According to the students' mentor, Prof. Christopher Brock, the biotechnology honors' courses helped students to have greater interest in biotechnology, genetics, and other related sciences.

Read more at http://www.azcentral.com/community/gilbert/articles/20130208williams-field-biotech-students-sequence-gene.html.

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Announcements

What: Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC 2013)

Where: Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

When: September 15 – 18, 2013

For more information, visit http://www.abic.ca/abic2013/.

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What: 4th International Conference on Food Engineering and Biotechnology (ICFEB 2013)

Where: Copenhagen, Denmark

When: May 19-20, 2013

Visit the conference website for more information: http://www.icfeb.org/.

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