In This Issue

June 18, 2014

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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

More than 80 researchers from 30 institutions in 18 countries have sequenced and analyzed the genome of Eucalyptus grandis. The Eucalyptus genome has 640 million DNA base pairs, containing 36,000 genes.

The eucalyptus team identified genes encoding the 18 final enzymatic steps for the production of cellulose and the hemicellulose xylan, both cell wall carbohydrates that can be used for biofuel production. Results also revealed an ancient whole-genome duplication event estimated to have occurred about 110 million years ago, as well as an unusually high proportion of genes in tandem duplicate arrays.

The researchers also found that among sequenced plants to date, Eucalyptus showed the highest diversity of genes for specialized metabolites such as terpenes, hydrocarbons that serve as chemical self-defenses against pests, as well as providing the familiar aromatic essential oils used in both medicinal cough drops and for industrial processes.

For more details about this research, read the news release at http://jgi.doe.gov/just-food-koalas-eucalyptus-global-tree-fuel-fiber/

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Research conducted by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant physiologist Lewis Ziska projects changes in crop production as air temperatures increase due to climate change. In the study published June 11 in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, researchers observed that one of the effects that agricultural producers may see as air temperatures increase is a corresponding increase of insects, weeds and fungal pests because of milder winter temperatures. Another possible result could be for growers to increase their pesticide use to respond to these pests and maintain soybean production levels.

Low winter temperatures in temperate regions keep in check the distribution and survival of agricultural pests. Ziska examined average pesticide applications since 1999 for commercial soybean grown over a transect from Minnesota to Louisiana, and determined that from 1977 through 2013, minimum winter temperatures were increasing throughout the transect. Ziska's observation is consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections regarding enhanced warming with increasing latitude.

For more details, read the USDA ARS news article at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2014/140611.htm.

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The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a new publication titled FAO Success Stories on Climate-smart Agriculture. The main message of the publication is that climate-smart approach in agriculture will not only help prevent future problems in food security but also holds the promise of initiating economic renewal in rural areas stricken by hunger and poverty. The publication features case studies in climate-smart agriculture from different countries worldwide.

"We can no longer afford to separate the future of food security from that of natural resources, the environment and climate change - they are inextricably intertwined and our response must be as well," said FAO Deputy Director-General Helena Semedo.

Download the publication at http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3817e.pdf.

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Africa

Biotech bananas, fortified with nutrients, will go through the first human trial in the U.S. to test their ability to fight vitamin A deficiency. The bananas have orange flesh, because of the increased beta-carotene, which will be converted into vitamin A in the body. The biofortified banana was developed by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to address the vitamin A deficiency epidemic that kills hundreds of thousands of children annually or causes them to go blind.

The trials will last for 6 weeks with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Results will be available at the end of 2014, and commercialization is expected to start by 2020 in Uganda. The technology is also intended to be transferred to other African countries including Rwanda, Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Read more at http://news.sciencemag.org/sifter/2014/06/superbananas-could-fight-vitamin-a-deficiency and http://time.com/2880579/super-banana-vitamins-nutrients-uganda-genetic-engineering/.

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Americas

Scientists, including a team from the University of Florida, have unveiled a new tool that will help plant researchers annotate genes quickly and accurately. Cristopher Henry, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago who led in creating the database called PlantSEED, said it is an important step toward designing improved crops, such as rice that grows more efficiently, or is more drought resistant, or creating perennial corn.

The open-access system PlantSEED integrates data from plant scientists around the world into a common platform, to achieve better results and quickly-updated plant models for everyone using them. The creators of the database said PlantSEED will help plant scientists make better use of genome information by helping them create consistently accurate models for all plant genomes contained in the database.

Read more about this research at http://news.ufl.edu/2014/06/10/new-plant-gene-labeling/.

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Field testing of biotech sugarcane varieties developed by Ceres, Inc. has been initiated to evaluate the performance of high sugar and drought tolerance traits of the plants. The first growing cycle will be completed in the second half of 2015, when preliminary performance observations will be available. The evaluations will be managed by a South American sugarcane developer.

"If our greenhouse results are confirmed in the field, plants with Ceres' traits could allow growers to leapfrog ahead of the incremental gains that have been made through plant breeding alone," said Dr. Roger Pennell, vice president for trait development for Ceres. "Plant breeding is particularly cumbersome in sugarcane. The plants have long growing cycles and common breeding processes are difficult to implement due to limitations in how and when sugarcane plants produce pollen and flowers."

If the biotech sugarcane varieties were proven to exhibit improved traits, then the new varieties could provide significant benefits to sugarcane production. Higher sugar yields and greater tolerance to drought and other stress conditions would not only increase output, but also lower production costs.

Read Ceres' news release at http://www.ceres.net/News/NewsReleases/2014/06-11-14-News-Rel.html.

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Scientists from the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) developed a new technique that could boost the search for soybeans with resistance to fungus that causes Phomopsis seed decay (PSD). The pathogen degrades soybean seed and decreased the quality of its protein and oil. Outbreaks of PSD in 2012 in 16 U.S. states led to losses of over 2 million bushels.

The researchers used the common soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens to transfer genes for an antibiotic marker and green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the nucleus of the fungus' cells. This led to new strains of the fungus that produce the protein and exhibit a green glow when exposed to light in the blue-to-ultraviolet range.

Soybean seedlings were inoculated with the modified strains to study how the infection occurs in the tissues of both resistant and susceptible soybean germplasm lines. The approach should also help in identifying sources of PSD resistance that are undetected when using conventional disease screening methods, such as those requiring field observation of symptoms.

The study was published in the Journal of Microbiological Methods.

Read more at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2014/140609.htm.

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Genome Canada, in collaboration with Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), launched the 2014 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition: Genomics and Feeding the Future. The objective of the competition is to support research projects that will create new knowledge and inform public policy for Canada's agri-food and fisheries and aquaculture sectors and contribute solutions that can help feed the world's growing population. About $90 million will be allotted for the research projects which will last for over 4 years.

For more details, visit http://www.genomecanada.ca/en/about/news.aspx?i=498.

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Asia and the Pacific

About 10 million small, resource-poor rice farmers are now planting climate-smart rice varieties, which includes flood-tolerant varieties. Climate-smart rice varieties are made to especially thrive in environments affected by flooding, drought, cold temperatures, and soils that contain too much salt or iron. One of these varieties is Swarna-Sub 1, a flood-tolerant rice variety developed by scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

According to Mr. Trilochan Parida, a rice farmer in Odisha, India, Swarna-Sub1 changed his life. Flooding is a major problem of Parida every year. In 2008, he planted Swarna-Sub1 and saw his rice plants rise back to life after being under flood waters for two weeks.

More farmers are expected to overcome the impact of climate change in rice production. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will fund the third phase of the IRRI-led Stress-Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA) project with USD 32.77 million for five more years.

Read more at http://irri.org/news/media-releases/climate-smart-rice-now-grown-by-10-million-farmers.

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Europe

UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) Secretary Owen Paterson visited the John Innes Centre on June 6, 2014 and discussed with JIC scientists about how modern and traditional genetic modification techniques can protect major crops from pests and pathogens. He also discussed about the restrictive EU regulation on GM field tests. "The EU has the most robust and comprehensive safety system for GM in the world and is already a mass consumer of GM crops," he said. "Despite this, GM products which have passed the safety assessments remain stuck in the pipeline. Only one crop has been approved for cultivation in the last 14 years."

"While I acknowledge the views of other Member States, I want British researchers and farmers to be able to reap the economic and environmental benefits of the latest technologies. We have a world class science and research base and the expertise to play a leading role in feeding a rapidly increasing global population," he added. Patterson promised to do all that he could to put British science at the heart of world-leading agricultural research.

Read the media release at http://www.jic.ac.uk/news/2014/06/owen-paterson-visits-jic/.

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The European Union member states agreed on a plan to renationalize decisions of GM crops cultivation. In 2010, the European Commission proposed to let individual member states to ban or allow a GM crop in their territory, while the commission would still give marketing approvals for European countries based on the scientific opinion released by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). That proposal was revived in February 2014 when states debated over the approval of a GM maize line. Twenty six of the 28 member states agreed on this "cultivation proposal" on June 12, as practical compromise. In the coming months, Europe's Council of Ministers must agree on a joint version of the plan with the incoming European Parliament before the final text can be adopted, possibly in 2015.

EuropaBio released a statement expressing the biotech industry's dismay about the agreement. "To renationalize a common EU policy, based on non-objective grounds, is a negative precedent and contrary to the spirit of the single market," said André Goig, Chair of EuropaBio. "In particular, it would allow Member States to formally reject a technology on non-scientific grounds, which sets a dangerous precedent and sends a negative signal for innovative industries considering whether or not to operate in Europe," added Mr. Goig. "In the end it should be up to farmers to decide what they want to plant in their fields."

Read more details at http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2014/06/european-nations-back-new-rules-snubbing-gm-crops and http://www.europabio.org/sites/default/files/press/biotech_industry_disappointed_with_ministers_agreement_to_renationalise_decisions_on_gm_crops_cultivation.pdf.

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Research

Mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK) play key roles in plant immunity against pathogens. However, it is still unclear if SlMKKs genes, which are MAPKs from tomato, also have an effect on a plant's resistance against the fungal pathogen Botrytis cinerea commonly known as gray mold.

Five SlMKK genes were identified in tomato and analyzed. It revealed that the expression of two of the five SlMKK genes, SlMKK2 and SlMKK4, was induced by gray mold. This showed that SlMKK2 and SlMKK4 were the only ones involved with the resistance to gray mold. Silencing either of the two resulted in reduced resistance to gray mold in tomato plants.

Silencing of SlMKK2 and SlMKK4 expression in tomato demonstrate that both of these genes function as positive regulators of defense response against gray mold.

For more information regarding this study, please visit: http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2229-14-166.pdf.

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Most studies on plant response to drought have focused on vegetative development. Morphological changes of reproductive development under various drought conditions have not yet been fully studied. Hence, Arabidopsis plants were grown under two drought conditions: moderate drought (45-50% soil water content) and severe drought (30-35% soil water content). Plants in moderate drought were still able to produce a similar number of siliques and seeds as well-watered plants, in contrast to plants grown in severe drought.

Analysis showed a change in the level of gene expression in more than four thousand genes in plants under severe drought. Meanwhile, in those plants under moderate drought, less than two thousand genes had changed their levels of expression. Some genes were also found to alter their expression only in moderate drought but not the severe drought, indicating distinct sets of genes responsive to different levels of water availability.

Different pathways in reproductive tissues may be activated depending on the level of drought. This helps plants to maximize its yield and balance the resource consumption between vegetative and reproductive development during drought stresses.

If you want to read more on this promising study, please visit http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2229/14/164/abstract.

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Indian Agricultural Research Institute scientist Raman Jeet Singhab and I. P. S. Ahlawat conducted a study to evaluate and quantify the residual effect of two tiered intercropping of Bt cotton and groundnut with substitution of 25-50 percent recommended dose of nitrogen (RDN) for cotton by farm yard manure (FYM), on productivity and soil fertility in Bt cotton-wheat system. The study took place in New Delhi, India from 2006 to 2008.

Results showed that wheat following groundnut intercropped Bt cotton receiving 50percent RDN substitution through FYM had significantly 5 percent higher grain yield than that after sole cotton. Residual soil fertility was improved under cotton and groundnut–wheat system with substitution of 50 percent RDN for cotton by FYM. Apparent nitrogen balance in the wheat harvest was negative in most of the treatments, with greater loss recorded under pure stand of cotton–wheat system with 100 percent RDN for cotton through urea.

Based on the results, it was concluded that including a legume and organic manure in Bt-cotton-wheat system is a sustainable practice to address the increasing prices of N-fertilizers with environmental effects.

Read the abstract at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00103624.2014.912291#.U41dufmSwvI.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

The International Cooperation to Sequence the Atlantic Salmon Genome (ICSASG) has successfully mapped the whole genome sequence of the Atlantic salmon. The fully assembled reference sequence, which is available for researchers worldwide, will have a major impact on revealing information about salmon and other salmonids, such as rainbow trout and Pacific salmon.

Dr. Steinar Bergseth, Chair of the International Steering Committee for the ICSASG, said "Knowledge of the whole genome makes it possible to see how genes interact with each other, and examine the exact gene that governs a certain trait such as resistance against a particular disease. The development of vaccines and targeted treatment is much closer."

For more information, read http://www.genomebc.ca/news-events/news-releases/2014/scientific-breakthrough-international-collaboration-has-sequenced-atlantic-salmon-genome/.

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A study published in the June 2014 issue of Nature Communications shows how genetic engineering can be used to suppress or eliminate pests, particularly mosquitoes. Roberto Galizi of Imperial College London and colleagues generated a system that distorts the gender ratio of mosquitoes and reduce the number of females. Fewer female mosquitoes means fewer vectors of disease because only female mosquitoes bite.

The researchers used I-PpoI, an enzyme that cuts specifically within the mosquito's ribosomal gene sequences (rDNA), which are located in a single cluster on the X chromosome. They developed a transgenic strain of mosquitoes that expresses I-PpoI in sperm cells to cleave the X chromosome and produce mostly Y chromosome-bearing sperm and thus male progeny. These male progeny would inherit the I-PpoI endonuclease gene, leading to generations of about 95 percent male offspring.

Read the research report at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2014/140610/ncomms4977/full/ncomms4977.html.

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Consumers are almost always prepared to pay more for meat with superior eating qualities. An example of a measure of quality in meat is the intramuscular fat, which is associated with juiciness and flavor. The expression of genes involved in triacyglyceride and fatty acid synthesis and storage in cattle muscle are correlated with intramuscular fat percentage (IMF%). However, this still has not been proven in sheep muscle.

Twenty sheep were evaluated and the correlation between gene expression and IMF% in the sheep's longissimus muscle (located along the side of the spine) was calculated. Thirty genes were identified to be strongly correlated with IMF% in both cattle and sheep. Out of the 30 genes, CIDEA, THRSP, ACSM1, DGAT2 and FABP4 had the highest average rank in both species. The expression of any of these five genes could effectively estimate IMF%.

IMF% estimated from the gene expression was then compared against other methods of measuring IMF%. Two groups of Brahman cattle, a control group and a group with decreased IMF%, were utilized for this comparison. The IMF% estimated from gene expression was the only one able to discriminate between the two groups. Moreover, using up to five genes to estimate IMF% can increase the discriminating power.

To learn more on IMF% estimation through gene expression, feel free to visit: http://www.jasbsci.com/content/pdf/2049-1891-5-35.pdf.

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Announcements

What: Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy

When: December 7-9, 2014

Where: Westin Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego, California

For more details, visit http://www.bio.org/events/conferences/where-east-meets-west-pacific-rim-summit-industrial-biotechnology-and-bioenergy.

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What: Livestock Biotech Summit

When: September 16-18, 2014

Where: Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA

Register at http://www.bio.org/events/conferences/livestock-biotech-summit.

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Document Reminders

The booklet Agricultural Biotechnology (A Lot More Than Just GM Crops) explains and compares tools of agri-biotech including conventional breeding, tissue culture and micropropagation, molecular breeding and marker-assisted selection, and genetic engineering. It also includes a section on "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions" for food safety and environmental issues to clarify important public concerns.

The booklet is part of ISAAA's Biotech Information Series.

To download a copy of the booklet, click http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/agricultural_biotechnology/download/default.asp

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