News

Africa

Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) conducted a capacity building workshop for the recently recruited officials from the ministries of environment and science and technology on March 19-20, 2019 at National Crops Resources Research Institute.

The workshop aimed to update the ministry officials on the latest developments in agricultural biotechnology research and development, as well as to highlight the basic principles of risk assessment and socio-economic considerations in regulatory decision making, and role of line ministries in biotechnology regulation.

While giving his remarks on the role of Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Isaac Wamasembe – a plant protection inspector noted that it is very important for new ministries such as science and technology, to know the relevant legal instruments where they derive their mandate. He further noted, that it is quite imperative for the ministry to ensure a good biotechnology law, if it were to satisfactorily fulfill its mandate. Participants were taken through the different biotech laboratory facilities, and also visited the confined field trials of genetically engineered cassava.

In his remarks, the Director of STI Regulation and Biosafety, Dr. James Kasigwa, on behalf of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation indicated that he was impressed with the human and infrastructural capacity built by NARO in biotechnology research. He encouraged NARO to continue making progress with the research ministry puts in place the necessary regulatory framework. He also strongly recommended that NARO should consider having patents on some of its innovations to enhance its competiveness.

For more information, contact ubic.nacrri@gmail.com.

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The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service's Global Agricultural Information Network (USDA FAS-GAIN) released their report on Mozambique's agricultural biotechnology sector status for 2018. It highlights the initial results of the Mozambican Agricultural Research Institute's genetically engineered (GE) corn confined field trials. The trials are set to be done in two stages. With the first stage completed, data gathered after two planting seasons showed that the GE corn was effective against the spotted stem borer/stalk borer and also the fall armyworm. The second stage is set to be conducted without irrigation to test the GE corn's resistance to drought. The GE corn trials are part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program, a public-private partnership effort that aims to develop pest and drought tolerant corns using biotechnology and conventional breeding.

Another highlight of USDA FAS' report is the Mozambican government's acknowledgment of biotechnology's contribution to achieve the country's food and nutritional security, as well as the importance of the having appropriate regulations to support biotechnology research and development. Currently, the Gruppo Inster-Institutional Sobre Bio-Seguranca (GIBBS) is tasked to serve as the National Biosafety Committee. The committee regularly meets with public and private sector representatives to coordinate biosafety activities in Mozambique, and to update regulations pertaining to the research and development of GE crops.

Read the full report to know more.

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Nigerian legislators have given their support behind activities of the country's biosafety agency in regulating modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Chairman House Committee on Environment and Habitat Honorable Obinna Chidoka said the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) is acting in accordance with the law and is completely backed by the National Assembly.

Speaking during the Committee's oversight visit to the NBMA in Abuja, Hon. Chidoka commended the Agency for being a regional leader in facilitating a strong biosafety system and an example to be emulated by countries adopting modern biotechnology.

Hon. Aishatu Dukku, a member of the Committee, lauded the Agency for granting approval for commercial release of pod borer-resistant (PBR) Bt cowpea in the country. She exuded confidence that Bt cowpea will offer farmers viable solutions to insect attacks on their beans and reduce their dependence on pesticides. "Your activities as a safety and regulatory agency, which has confirmed this variety safe for Nigerians, are in the interest of the common man and I must commend that," assured Hon. Dukku.

NBMA Director General (DG) Dr. Rufus Ebegba applauded the Committee's effort in ensuring a holistic biosafety framework by proposing an amendment to the National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2015 to include emerging technologies. The proposed bill seeks to expand the scope of the Act to include evolving aspects of biotechnology such as gene drives, gene editing, and synthetic biology. "We have a great responsibility in an ever-expanding sector and we must fine-tune the law to regulate emerging technologies in the biotechnology sector," said the DG.

During the visit, the Committee members were also updated on the status of the Agency's upgraded state-of-the-art Genetic Modification Detection and Analysis Laboratory.

For more information, contact Dr. Rufus Ebegba at rebegba@gmail.com, or read the NBMA Press Release.

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Asia and the Pacific

Scientists from the University of Western Australia (UWA) have discovered two enzymes that explain the sensitivity of wheat plants to salty soils.

The UWA research describes the two wheat enzymes, which are especially sensitive to salt and appear to be the weak link leading to plant death in saline soils. The researchers also discovered wheat has a natural defense system that can bypass one of the sensitive enzymes, partially protecting against salt.

The bypass system, called the ‘GABA shunt', allows wheat plants to stop using one of their salt-sensitive enzymes when threatened by salinity. However, the resistance provided by the GABA shunt also appears to be limited, and is overpowered by especially saline soils. Dr. Nicolas Taylor, lead author of the study said, "If we can learn how to control the GABA shunt, its timing and intensity, we may be able to boost the wheat plant's natural resistance to salt, without an impact on yield."

Read more details in the UWA news release.

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More than a hundred participants composed of farmers, local government officials and representives from the private sector and academe from the provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, and La Union attended the Biotechnology 101 and Joint Department Circular (JDC) No. 1, Series of 2016 Public Briefing held at Plaza del Norte, Laoag City, Ilocos Norte on March 28, 2019.

Scientists and experts from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines gave presentations on biotechnology, food and environmental safety of genetically modified (GM) crops, different biotech products in the pipeline, and new breeding innovations. Representatives from the Departments of Health, Agriculture, Science and Technology, and Interior and Local Government were also present to discuss the guidelines of their respective agencies in the implementation of the JDC as well as address questions from the audience.

The participants expressed their anticipation on approval of new GM crops in the country (i.e., Bt eggplant and Golden Rice) and inquired if the approval process can be expedited. The experts explained that the rigid regulatory system is important to guarantee the safety of GM crops in the market. They also affirmed the validity of the biosafety regulations as the Philippines has one of the most stringent regulatory guidelines worldwide. Another concern raised was the price of Bt eggplant seeds. Ms. Anna Pauleen Masanga from the UPLB-Institute of Plant Breeding and a member of the Bt eggplant project team assured the group that the seeds will be made available to farmers at a reasonable price once it is commercialized. 

The activity was organized by the SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center (SEARCA BIC) in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture (DA)-Biotechnology Information Office, ISAAA, DA Regional Office I, and Ilocos Norte Provincial Agricultural Office.

For more details about biotechnology developments in the Philippines, visit the SEARCA BIC website.

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Europe

An international team of researchers from VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology and University of Basel has found a link between a class of enzymes and immune signals that is rapidly triggered when plants are damaged.

In plants, damaged cells send out signals to alert the surrounding tissue of the wound. These signals activate the immune system to prevent infection and promote tissue regeneration. Short protein fragments or peptides are important in the plant's immune system. These peptides are produced from precursor proteins that are ‘cut into shape' by so-called proteolytic enzymes or proteases.

There are many proteases, which means that identification of the ones important to the immune system is necessary. The teams wounded the leaves of Arabidopsis and found that a class of proteolytic enzymes called metacaspases played an important role in the plant's response which involves the release of calcium and the peptide precursor protein PROPEP1. To check this finding, they produced a plant with a mutation in the gene coding for an important metacaspase. This plant was unable to release the immune signal. To understand the speed and extent of the immune response in Arabidopsis, Simon Stael, the postdoc who led the efforts, damaged the roots with lasers and found the targeted plant cells responded quickly.

For more details, read the VIB news release.

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Research

Scientists from Huazhong Agricultural University assessed the reaction of Bt and non-Bt rice to various levels of nitrogen. They used T2A-1 (Bt rice variety) inserted with Cry2A* protein and observed the nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) metabolisms in the plants. The results are published in Scientific Reports.

The total N accumulation showed no statistical difference between the Bt and non-Bt rice plants. However, the nitrogen contents in various parts of rice plant were significantly different between Bt and non-Bt rice plants, especially on the leaf and spike. The nitrogen in the leaves of Bt rice was found to be far more than that of the non-Bt counterpart, while the nitrogen in the spike of Bt rice was less than that of the non-Bt plants. The non-Bt plants also assimilated more C than Bt rice, but the distribution proportion of C in leaf, stem, and spike of Bt and non-Bt rice were both in equal ratio.

The researchers also reported that the number of differentially expressed protein with N deficiency treatment was almost double of that exposed to normal N levels. This may imply that insertion of Cry2A* in rice could affect C and N allocation and related metabolisms, particularly in low N environment.

For more details, read the article in Scientific Reports.

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New Breeding Technologies

In a perspective article published in Science, an international team of researchers argues that new plant breeding technologies – such as genome editing – can contribute significantly to food security and sustainable development. Also in the past, plant breeding and other agricultural technologies played an important role for food security, but the resulting high intensity in the use of agrochemicals has caused serious environmental problems as well. Future technologies need to reduce the environmental footprint and make agriculture more resilient to climate stress. Predictions suggest that small farms in Africa and Asia will suffer especially from the effects of climate change. Genome editing can be used to make crop plants more resistant to pests and diseases and more tolerant to drought and heat. This can help to reduce crop losses and chemical pesticide sprays. Methods such as CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to make precise point mutations without introducing foreign genes. Due to their low costs, these methods can also be employed in previously neglected crops, such as pulses and local vegetables.

In the article, the authors show which concrete genome-edited crops could become available within the next five years. But they stress that international cooperation, public support, and efficient science-based regulation will be important to ensure that the poorest countries and the poorest farmers can also benefit.

Read the article in Science.

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The new plant breeding innovations need new European Union legislation that considers the latest advanced technologies, said EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis. He said this considering the massive manipulation and "scare-mongering" on the issue.

"From my point of view, we need a new legal regulatory framework for these new techniques," Andriukaitis said, suggesting that the issue will be discussed by the new European Commission after the May elections.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided in July 2018 that organisms obtained by mutagenesis, or gene editing, plant breeding technique are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive. Andriukaitis said the ECJ had been asked to interpret a law , the GM legislation, which was implemented 20 years ago and was referring to old techniques, without consideration for the latest advances in the field. He also rejected the claim of most environmentalists that multinational companies are behind the application of biotechnology, emphasizing the example of Bangladeshi farmers who used biotechnology and produce good crops to feed their families without using pesticides.

Read the original article from Euractiv.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

A new library of mutants of the single-celled photosynthetic green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii has enabled a team of plant scientists from Carnegie Institution for Science and Princeton University to identify more than 300 genes that are potentially required for photosynthesis.

Chlamydomonas is found in fresh and saltwater, moist soil, and even snow. This group of algae is photosynthetic and readily grow in the lab, even in darkness if given the right nutrients. The research team created a library of about 80,000 Chlamydomonas mutants where they identified 303 genes thought to be involved in photosynthesis. Of these, 65 encode proteins that were already known to play a role in photosynthesis. The remaining 238 genes had no previously known role in photosynthesis, making them targets for further research. Twenty-one of them are considered high-priorities for additional investigations.

The research findings show that nearly half of the genes that are necessary for plants to create carbohydrates by photosynthesis have not yet been characterized.

For more details, read the news release from Carnegie Science.

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A new study led by scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), and USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has sequenced the genomes of the English walnut and its wild North American relative using long-read DNA sequencing and optical genome mapping. The genome sequences are the highest quality ever assembled of any woody perennial.

According to Dan Kluepfel, a USDA-ARS scientist and principal investigator of the walnut-rootstock development project, they chose to cross the widely used English walnut with the wild Texas black walnut because of its native resistance to several soil-borne diseases and root nematodes, which are serious pests of walnut in California.

The scientists produced complete genome sequences of the two walnut species in the time normally required to produce the sequence of one genome. These genome sequences will now help researchers identify genetic markers that can be used to develop new varieties with improved pathogen and pest resistance.

For more details, read the news release from UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.

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Announcements

What: Translational Photosynthesis Conference 2019: Innovations in Agriculture for Food Security

Where: Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Center

When: June 30 - July 3, 2019

For more details, visit the conference website.

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Over the recent years, plant research and its associated technologies have improved drastically as a result of revolutionary breakthroughs such as new gene editing technology and the reduction in the cost of sequencing. As a result of many plants have now been successfully sequenced and a wide range of biological data-set made available, plant scientists are now making use of state of the art technology platforms to help explain biological principals, advance research and therefore enable benefits such as crop improvement and breeding techniques.

Meanwhile, the mass variety of microbes within the plant and soil are not only crucial in plant growth, yield & health, but also in pest management and fixation cycles. The crop quality improving technologies and the new pest control technologies are now becoming important tools to farmers.

This year, Global Engage, the University of Nottingham (Malaysia), and Crops for the Future, are pleased to announce that the congress is co-located with Microbiome for Agriculture Congress Asia 2019. This congress is part of our highly respected Plant Genomic Series held in Europe each May and the US every September each year.

Specific focus areas to be tackled in the congress include:

  • Gene Editing Technologies & Tool Stage Development
  • Plant Omics – Development, Application and Trends
  • Next Generation Sequencing for Next Generation Plant Breeding
  • Plant Bioinformatics and Data Management
  • Plant and Soil Microbes Interaction
  • Plant Microbiome and Agriculture

Join the congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on July 29-30, 2019! With ISAAA as the official media partner for this event, all Crop Biotech Update subscribers are entitled to get 10% off (valid till before event date) by applying the discount code SK/ISAAA/10 when you register online.

For more details, visit the following important links:
Agenda
Speakers
Registration
Microbiome for Agriculture Congress Asia

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Document Reminders

What is plant science? A blog article from the John Innes Centre (JIC) discusses the huge diversity of research covered under the ‘plant science' term. The article presents plant genetics citing examples of the most important species that have had their entire genomes sequenced, including the first plant to have its entire genome mapped, the ‘not-so-humble weed', the ‘model plant', Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress). 


The article also discussed genetic technology and cites genetic modification and gene editing, technologies which can inhibit the expression of harmful traits or introduce new characteristics which are of benefit, and work toward the same goals as traditional plant breeding but in a more controlled and speedier way.

For more details, read the article at the JIC Blog.


The Philippines has a long history with GM maize having been the first country in Asia to approve a GM crop for use as food and feed with Bt maize in 2002. The country's biosafety regulations were implemented in 1990 and investments for infrastructure for biotechnology date as far back as 1979.

The success story of GM maize is presented in a new publication titled GM Maize in the Philippines, a Success Story released by Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology amd Bioresources (ApCoAB) and Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI). Given the extensive history of GM maize, the booklet cannot be exhaustive. However, the publication seeks to give the readers a window on the myriad factors that formed the story. While all transformation events of GM maize that have been commercialized to date have been owned by private corporations, various academic, professional, non-government organizations, and international groups have performed various roles in information sharing and capacity building on GM technology. One lesson from the Philippine experience is that a multi-sectoral effort is needed to facilitate the safe and responsible use of GM technology for development.

Download the publication for free from APAARI.

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