Experts say that if mankind embraces biotechnology, hunger would be conquered as the productivity of GM crops is estimated to be 7-20% higher than traditional crops, and 33% higher than organic crops. This was emphasized by Obike Ukoh, a Nigerian journalist, in his article in The Tide.

Ukoh discussed the Malthusian Theory of Population wherein Malthus argued that when the population becomes higher than the availability of food, many people will die due to food shortage. When this situation occurs (dubbed as the Malthusian catastrophe), the natural course is that the population level will go back to a ‘sustainable level'. To prevent this catastrophe from happening, scientists continue to strive to boost agricultural production to attain food security. One of the proven solutions to boost crop productivity for food is biotechnology. However, campaigns against the technology are blocking its progress.

Ukoh quoted experts' statements on biotech in his article. "What we are having is ignorance; that's where education comes in," said Prof. Akinola Hassan, a professor of genetics at Uthman Danfodio University, Sokoto, one of the speakers at the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology held in Abeokuta recently. Prof. Hassan described the campaign against GM food as mere propaganda. "GMOs don't kill, they are not dangerous to health; the Federal Government is talking about green alternatives. They are saying that they want foods to be produced in a safe manner; and that can be achieved through the use of GMO," Prof. Hassan added.

Read the rest of the article from the Genetic Literacy Project.

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An international research group led by researchers from Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD)-France, and involves the CEA and Africa Rice Centre (AfricaRice), has identified the geographic origin of African rice domestication. The group sequenced more than 246 African wild and cultivated rice genomes, and revealed that rice was domesticated 3,000 years ago in the Inner Niger Delta in northern Mali. Their discovery coincides with that of archaeological traces of rice domestication in the same area.

The IRD group studied the full sequences of the genomes of 163 domestic varieties and 83 wild varieties, harvested in the Sahel and East Africa. The researchers have now generated the largest genomic database for African rice available to date and analyzed the genetic diversity of the cultivated rice. The researchers suggest that aridification of the Sahara may be behind the domestication, and that wild African rice populations likely declined as the Sahara dried up. The decline corresponds to the introduction of Asian rice in West Africa by the Portuguese.

For more details, read the press release from AfricaRice.

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The American Soybean Association (ASA) has filed their comments with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) regarding its proposed rule to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS).

The letter accompanying their comments state "As farmers, we understand and support the consumer's desire to know what is in their food. We are proud of the methods and technology we use to deliver a safe and affordable product to the consumer while developing ways to reduce impacts on the environment." The letter went on to say that biotechnology allows farmers to reduce inputs like water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

The NBFDS went through a chaotic situation of having conflicting bioengineered (BE) labeling requirements on grocery products at the state level that would have been confusing to consumers and cumbersome and costly for processors and food companies. While ASA commends AMS, they urge the USDA to adhere to the statutory definition of bioengineering, which requires mandatory labeling of foods that, "contain genetic material modified through transgenic biotechnology and exempts products that could be developed through conventional breeding techniques or found in nature." ASA further argues that USDA should adopt five percent as the threshold for the presence of bioengineered content required to trigger mandatory disclosure.

For more details, read the ASA news release.

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The U.S. commercial launch of LibertyLink® GT27™ (Event FG72 x LL55) soybeans has been announced by MS Technologies™ and Bayer. The new LibertyLink® GT27™ trait stack will benefit soybean growers by being the first to market combining tolerance to Liberty® (glufosinate-ammonium), glyphosate, and a new HPPD mode of action herbicide for soybeans, pending EPA approval. The new HPPDi (Group 27) herbicide under development will be the first of its kind available for use in soybeans. There are no HPPDi herbicides approved for use on soybeans.

LibertyLink® GT27™ soybeans have received all of the required import approvals to advance to commercialization in 2019 and will be broadly licensed throughout North America. Currently, over 100 seed companies have signed on to offer LibertyLink® GT27™ soybeans in their brands in 2019.

"The commercialization of LibertyLink® GT27™ soybeans is a great milestone for us in our continuous efforts to offer soybean growers more effective weed management solutions," said Rick Turner, Head of Seeds for Bayer.

For more information, read the news release from MS Technologies™.

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Asia and the Pacific

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has announced that the Philippine Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry (DA-BPI) has given the approval for the conduct of public consultations on the proposed field trials for GR2E Golden Rice. High-yielding inbred local rice varieties with the beta carotene producing GR2 Golden Rice trait are being developed by the Philippine Rice Research Institute and IRRI.

The public consultation process is a key component of biosafety regulatory approval under the Joint Department Circular No. 1 series of 2016. The consultation process is comprised of Public Information Sheet postings in accessible community locations, a 30-day public comment period, and public hearing. The process will allow community members the opportunity to participate responsibly in a critical biosafety decision-making process.

The public consultation will take place in the Philippine provinces of Muñoz, Nueva Ecija (July 18, 2018) and San Mateo, Isabela (July 20, 2018) by PhilRice and IRRI scientists and some government regulators. For more information, read the media release from IRRI.

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Scientists working on wheat research have discovered a combination of genes that provide resistance to the significant fungal disease Stagonospora nodorum blotch (SNB) in Western Australian varieties.

SNB costs Western Australian growers about $108 million per year due to leaf death and reduced grain fill – particularly in high rainfall areas and wet years.

Senior research officer Michael Francki said "We have found two or three genes from different wheat donors, when crossed with Australian lines and selected using DNA markers, expressed good levels of resistance to SNB at Northam and Katanning," he said. He added that if all goes well, new varieties with improved SNB resistance could be included in National Variety Trials in four or five years' time.

For more, read the news release from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

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An international team of experts from Denmark, Italy, France, and Japan identified a new receptor involved in symbiosis between legumes and nitrogen-fixing rhizobia. The results are published in eLife journal.

To start symbiosis, the legumes use certain receptor proteins that can recognize the Nod factor proteins produced by bacteria which are crucial in establishing the host-nonhost link between legumes and rhizobia. The presence of two well-known Nod factor receptors (NFR1 and NFR5) belonging to a large family of so-called LysM receptor kinase proteins implies that other similar receptors may be involved in Nod factor signaling as well. Thus, the researchers identified the role of another LysM receptor kinase called NRFe by studying a model legume species, Lotus japonicus.

Their findings showed that NFRe and NFR1 share similar and distinct biochemical and molecular characteristics. NRFe is expressed primarily in the cells located in a specific area on the surface of the roots. Compared to NFR1, NFRe has a restricted signaling capacity restricted to the outer root cell layer. When NRFe was mutated, less Nod factor signaling was activated inside the root and fewer nodules were formed.

NFR1-type receptors have also been found to be present in other plants that do not form a symbiotic relationship with rhizobial bacteria. This finding could provide a basis for new biotechnological targets in non-symbiotic crops, to enhance their growth in nutrient-limiting conditions.

Read the news release from Aarhus University.

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John Innes Centre (JIC) researchers discovered how rice plants have evolved custom-built defense solutions against different variants of the rice blast pathogen. The results of the study are published in Nature Plants.

Rice blast pathogen destroys enough food to feed over 60 million people per year. The team, led by Prof. Mark Banfield, focused on rice immune receptor to study how it has evolved to recognize several versions of a pathogen effector protein, a molecule used by the pathogen to promote disease working as "molecular handshake". This recognition leads to the disease being stopped in its tracks.

According to the researchers, understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in plant immunity could lead to engineering disease resistance against multiple crop pathogens.

Read more from JIC and Nature Plants.

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MicroRNA393 (miR393) is known to be involved in plant growth, development, and multiple stress responses in annual plants such as Arabidopsis and rice. However, the role of miR393 in perennial grasses remains unexplored. Understanding the role of miR393 functions in a turf species such as the economically important creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera) would allow genetic modification for improved abiotic stress tolerance.

The team of Junming Zhao from Clemson University in USA has developed a transgenic creeping bentgrass line overexpressing the rice Osa‐miR393a. The transgenic lines exhibited fewer, but longer tillers, and enhanced drought stress tolerance due to reduced stomata density and denser cuticles. It also displayed improved salt stress tolerance due to increased uptake of potassium and enhanced heat stress tolerance due to induced expression of small heat‐shock proteins.

The results revealed the distinctive roles of miR393 in plant development and stress responses in creeping bentgrass. miR393 would be a promising candidate for developing improved crop cultivars with enhanced multiple stress tolerance.

For more information, read the article in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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Metal tolerance proteins (MTPs) belong to the cation diffusion facilitator family (CDF) and are involved in metal transport and homeostasis in different plant species. A group of researchers from Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico studied a rice gene OsMTP11, which encodes a suspected CDF transporter that is homologous to members of the Mn-CDF cluster.

The team, led by Aarón Barraza, found that the expression of OsMTP11 in the Mn-sensitive yeast mutant pmr1 enhanced its manganese (Mn) tolerance. On the other hand, knockdown of OsMTP11 resulted in growth inhibition under high concentrations of Mn as well as increased accumulation of Mn in rice shoots and roots.

The overexpression of OsMTP11 in rice was found to enhance the plants' Mn tolerance. Under a toxic level of Mn, the overexpressing rice lines exhibited decreased Mn concentrations in their shoots and roots. Further analysis revealed that the OsMTP11 protein is localized to the trans-Golgi network (TGN).

These findings suggest that OsMTP11 is a Mn transporter that is required for Mn homeostasis and contributes towards Mn tolerance in rice.

For more information, read the article in Plant Science.

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New Breeding Technologies

A well-developed root system in rice (Oryza sativa) and other crops can ensure efficient absorption of nutrients and water. Auxin is a vital regulator for root development, however, the mechanisms by which auxin controls root development in rice are not fully understood. Researchers from the Huazhong Agricultural University in China, led by Tao Zhang, aim to explain these mechanisms.

The team found that overexpression of a YUC gene, which is vital for auxin synthesis, causes massive proliferation of crown roots. On the other hand, the disruption of the TAA1 gene, which functions upstream of the YUC genes, greatly reduces rice crown root development. Further analysis found that the crown root proliferation from YUC overexpression lines required the transcription factor WOX11.

The team also developed taa1 mutants via CRISPR-Cas9. These mutants exhibited crown rootless phenotype, which was partially rescued by overexpression of the transcription factor WOX11. WOX11 expression was also found to be induced in YUC overexpression lines, but is repressed in the taa1 mutants.

These results indicate that auxin synthesized by the TAA/YUC pathway is sufficient for crown root development in rice. Auxin activates WOX11 transcription, which drives root initiation and development. This establishes the YUC-Auxin-WOX11 complex for crown root development in rice.

For more information, read the article in Frontiers in Plant Science.

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Identifying genes that determine grain shape can greatly help the breeding of better rice cultivars. Thus, Dong-Sheng Zhao from Yangzhou University in China and team studied the Grain Shape Gene on Chromosome 9 (GS9) and its role in grain shape of rice. To further study the gene, the team developed both GS9-overexpressing and CRISPR-edited gs9 null mutants. The resulting gs9 mutants exhibited slender grains, while overexpression GS9 resulted in round grains.

Further analysis found that GS9 regulates grain shape by altering cell division. The GS9 protein was also found to interact with ovate family proteins. Genetic interaction analysis reveals that GS9 functions independently from other previously identified grain size genes. Introducing the gs9 allele into elite rice cultivars significantly improved grain shape and appearance.

The study suggests a potential application of gs9, alone or in combination with other grain size determining genes, in breeding rice varieties with optimized grain shape.

For more information, read the article in Nature Communications.

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CRISPR-Cas9 system has been adapted for targeted genome editing across species for a variety of applications. Before that, the same system provided immunity to bacteria and archaea against invading phages, conjugative plasmids, and nucleic acids. Researchers from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia aimed to adapt the CRISPR-Cas9 system to function as an immunity machine against plant DNA viruses.

To test if the CRISPR-Cas9 system is applicable to plants, the team led by Manal Tashkandi, produced plants stably overexpressing Cas9 and sgRNAs against single or multiple DNA viruses in tobacco and tomato plants for durable virus resistance. These were then tested in virus- interference experiments. Developing a viral-interference system in plants will help understand the mechanism of virus biology and host-defense mechanisms against plant viruses.

This study succeeded in testing the efficacy of CRISPR-Cas9 system for viral interference in plants. This could be used for developing plants resistant to multiple viral infections.

For more information, read the article on the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology website.

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Plants are effective alternative platforms for the production of pharmaceutical proteins. However, differences between plant and mammalian N-linked glycans, such as the presence of β-1,2-xylose and core α-1,3-fucose residues in plants, can affect the effectiveness of plant-derived proteins.

Tobacco is widely used for the expression of recombinant proteins, hence, it is desirable to modify its N-glycosylation machinery to allow the synthesis of complex N-glycans lacking β-1,2-xylose and core α-1,3-fucose. Julia Jansing from Aachen University in Germany and team used multiplex CRISPR-Cas9 to develop tobacco lines without α-1,3-fucosyltransferase and β-1,2-xylosyltransferase activity by inducing mutations on six different genes. The team confirmed the multiple gene knockouts by analysis of endogenous proteins and the recombinant monoclonal antibody 2G12.

The team then compared the CD64‐binding affinity of the 2G12 glycovariants produced in wildtype tobacco, the CRISPR-edited line, and Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. The engineered antibody performed as well as its CHO-produced counterpart.

For more information on this study, read the article in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) released an Issue Paper titled Genome Editing in Agriculture: Methods, Applications, and Governance. CAST explains that genome editing is a powerful new method that enables unprecedented control over genetic material and offers the opportunity to make rapid advances that influence agricultural practices. Thus, the issue paper addresses the concept by explaining the following topics:

  • how genome editing is performed,
  • what types of edits can be made,
  • how the process relates to traditional breeding and other means of genetic modification,
  • what potential limitations may arise with this approach, and
  • what current factors affect the governance of gene editing.

Although much remains to be learned, it is clear that successful development of genome editing for crop and livestock improvement will benefit from science-informed, value-attentive regulation that promotes both innovation and transparency. The new resource aimed at providing a conceptual and knowledge-based foundation for regulatory agencies, policymakers, private and public research institutions, industry, and the general public.

Download a copy of the report from the CAST website.

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What: BioTaiwan 2018

When: July 19-22, 2018

Where: TWTC Nangang Exhibition Hall, Taipei, Taiwan

One of the largest gatherings of its kind in Asia, BioTaiwan is five events in one, including the investment-focused BioBusiness Asia conference, the Greater China Opportunities forum; company presentations from Asia and around the world, one-on-one partnering, seminars and workshops, and the BioTaiwan Exhibition. For more details, visit the conference website.

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Document Reminders

Scientist Kelvin Folta interviewed Mark Lynas, author of Seeds of Science: How We Got it Wrong on GMOs for one of his episodes in the Talking Biotech podcast. Lynas, who used to be a biotech critic, shared that he believed in his heart that what he was doing then was right. He went to GM crop research field trials to "decontaminate" the farms, which delayed the research and development of GM crops. Then he started to write a book about climate change  and understood the need for scientific evidence. When he did this for studying GM crops, he found out that he was not relaying on scientific facts in his claims and eventually changed his mind.

Know more from their discussion at Talking Biotech.

From The BICs

A set of basic principles and recommendations emerged as part of the first roundtable meeting on "Role of Public-Private Partnership in Agricultural Research, Technology, and Innovation" organized jointly by South Asia Biotechnology Centre and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) supported by Bayer CropScience, held on June 11, 2018 to boost public-private partnership (PPP) in agriculture research, technology, and innovation.

The recommendations emphasize the urgency to put in place a clear policy and institutional mechanism to spur PPP for both the upstream and downstream sides of agricultural value-chain. Below are the recommendations from the roundtable meeting on PPP to overcome concerns raised by stakeholders:

  • Recognize PPP in the form of a policy instrument as the most effective mechanism for research, technological innovations, and transfer of technology from lab to land.
  • Announce a clear policy statement and develop an institutional mechanism and guidelines on PPP in agriculture with a well-defined scope of activities, roles and responsibilities and time-bound executions.
  • Constitute a national level committee for promotion of PPP strategy for progressive growth and development of Indian agriculture.
  • Create PPP modules to inspire, educate, and utilize its potential in agriculture.
  • Develop guidelines and formalize the PPP framework spanning from joint research and development to product commercialization.
  • Decentralize the process of collaboration depending on the kind of PPP.
  • Develop guidelines for sharing costs to be incurred by partners on upscaling, evaluation, and commercialization of technologies conceived under PPP model.
  • New technologies such as gene editing have emerged as an important tool to improve crop productivity or value of the crop, and therefore there is a strong need for public-private collaborative initiatives to conduct joint R&D for development of varieties fortified with nutrition and resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses

For more information about PPP in agricultural research, technology, and innovation, visit the SABC and ICRISAT websites.

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