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Scientists under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project drawn from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center have for the first time established a confined field trial for genetically modified maize resistant to African maize stem borer (Busseola fusca). The pest, which is endemic to African uplands 500m above sea level causes 13 percent loss of all harvested maize grain in Kenya. The maize is a stack of both insect resistance and drought tolerance traits. Although scientists have conducted trials on insect resistant (Bt) maize, which is effective against the spotted stem borer Chilo partellus at the low altitude areas, there was a need to investigate the efficacy of the insect resistance gene on the problematic Busseola fusca.
"With the first season of the trial almost out, farmers can be assured of a solution to the pest in the near future, should the approval to grow the maize commercially be granted," observed Dr. Eliud Kireger, Director General of KALRO, during a field study tour for National Biosafety Authority (NBA) and Biosafety Appeals Boards at the trial site in KALRO Kitale Center, western Kenya, on July 22, 2016.
The study tour, which was organized by KALRO, in collaboration with ISAAA AfriCenter through the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology program, exposed members of the two boards to the GM maize trial. The regulators interacted with scientists conducting the trial, who responded to questions regarding compliance of the trial to the Biosafety Act, 2009. "The early exposure of members of the NBA board to the GM maize trial will no doubt lessen their work when the application for environmental release of the maize will be submitted," said Dr. Willy Tonui, CEO, NBA. The members of the boards appreciated the efficacy of the Bt maize in managing the African stem borer menace in the highlands.
For more on the Kenyan GM maize trial, contact the KARLO WEMA project PI, Dr. Murenga Mwimali on email@example.com.
A recent study published in the International Journal of Biotechnology demystifies the belief that releasing a GM crop costs tens, if not hundreds, of millions of U.S. dollars. The study assessed the cost and time of developing a GM late blight resistant (LBr) potato variety for deregulation and release as a public good, in a specific developing country. Two independently not-for-profit assessed projects have estimated that to deliver one LBr variety to resource-poor farmers in a developing country, it would cost between US$1.3-1.5 million, within a period of eight to nine years. Such costs are not far from a conventionally-bred variety, although the two should not be compared since GM produces products unachievable by conventional breeding.
Publicly funded institutions have been deterred from developing biotech crops because of the cost implications attached to the process of developing and releasing a GM variety. Previous costs, from discovery to deregulation and release, have been estimated at US$136 million. These findings therefore suggest that public institutions in developing countries can make significant contribution to crop improvement through genetic engineering.
The paper titled Demystification of GM crop costs: releasing late blight resistant potato varieties as public goods in developing countries is available online using DOI: 10.1504/IJBT.2016.077942.
For more information on the study, contact Marc Ghislain at M.Ghislain@cgiar.org.
Stephen Campbell, research specialist and Professor David Stern of the Boyce Thompson Institute report the discovery of a repair system in the algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which uses chloroplast extracts and light to release an interrupting sequence from a protein. The discovery has implication in agriculture and biotechnology because it could potentially be harnessed to enable proteins to become active only in the light.
C. reinhardtii has the necessary toolkit to repair proteins by removing extra sequences called insertions that disrupt their functions. The new repair system was discovered by Campbell while he was purifying a protein from C. reinhardtii chloroplasts that can cut RNA. He identified the sequenced protein as RB47, a protein that was not known to have any RNA-cleaving ability. Campbell noticed that the middle of the protein was missing, and it was shorter than expected.
The researchers detected a long version of the protein that contained an insertion and a short version without it. The cells make both versions when grown in the light or the dark, but only the short version can cleave RNA. The long version of the protein could be converted into the short one by mixing it with chloroplasts from cells grown in the light. This process removed the interrupting insertion and restored the protein's RNA-cutting activity.
For more details, read the news release at the BTI website.
U.S President Barack Obama signed the GM food labeling bill into law. The bill was drafted by Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow, which aims to prevent states from issuing mandatory labeling laws and require food manufacturers to use one of three different labels for GM food products: (1) label with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) symbol indicating the presence of GMOs; (2) label using plain language; or (3) add a scanning code that links to ingredient details.
USDA formed a working group that will make the necessary guidelines on the implementation of the legislation. The new law also nullifies Vermont's GMO labeling law which took effect on July 1, 2016.
Read more from Agriculture.
Asia and the Pacific
Twenty-five (25) members of the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) Region 11 Press Corps visited biotech research institutions and organizations in Los Baños, Laguna on July 27-29, 2016 to learn about the basic science, applications, and potential benefits of biotechnology, with focus on the country's R&D status of products in the pipeline.
The Training-Writeshop on Engaging Regional Media for Science-Based Reporting on Modern Agricultural Technologies, organized by DA Region 11 and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture Biotechnology Information Center (SEARCA BIC), shared insights to enable the media to write/produce compelling stories in modern agricultural technologies, particularly biotech.
The media practitioners also visited UPLB's Institute of Plant Breeding where they learned about the Bt eggplant project and the Philippine Genome Center, and the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology where they learned about its programs and activities for biotech research not involving GMOs. They also visited the International Rice Research Institute headquarters and learned about the Golden Rice project.
The media participants were briefed about the global status of biotech crops in 20 years, as well as the highlights for 2015 by ISAAA Global Coordinator Dr. Randy Hautea, and the activities of ISAAA's Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology by Dr. Rhodora Aldemita. They also learned about principles of effective science communication in the context of biotech from UPLB College of Development Communication Professor Dr. Cleofe Torres.
For more news and updates about biotech developments in the Philippines, visit SEARCA BIC's website.
A team of researchers from Canada and China has identified 'superstar' rice varieties that can reduce fertilizer loss, cutting costs and reducing pollution in the process. The identified rice varieties belong to both Indica (the world's most popular rice type grown in India, China and Southeast Asia) and Japonica (rice used in sushi) genotypes.
The study, authored by Professor Herbert Kronzucker of the University of Toronto Scarborough, looked at 19 varieties of rice to see which ones were more efficient at using nitrogen. Zhongjiu25 (ZJ25) and Wuyunjing7 (WYJ7) were the most effective genotypes among Indica and Japonica varieties, respectively, according to the study.
The team identified a novel class of chemicals produced and released by the roots of rice crops that directly influence the metabolism of soil microbes. They found that key microbial reactions that lead to an inefficiency in nitrogen capture can be significantly reduced in certain rice plants through the specific chemicals released from root cells.
Researchers at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) led by Associate Professor Meixue Zhou have identified a major gene controlling the tolerance of waterlogging in barley.
Barley is Australia's second biggest cereal crop, after wheat, with annual production averaging eight million tonnes, according to Professor Zhou. The research team is now looking into how the gene can be introduced into commercial varieties, and they are hoping to deliver a new line of barley with added waterlogging tolerance genes using the same selected varieties.
For more information, read the news release at the University of Tasmania website.
Law professors from the University of the Philippines Law Center-Institute of International Legal Studies (IILS) shared their assessment on Bt talong and GMOs in the Philippines during their special Agriculture and Development Seminar Series (ADSS) seminars for the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) on July 20, 2016, at SEARCA, College, Laguna.
IILS Officer-In-Charge Atty. Edgardo Carlo L. Vistan II shared his interpretation of the December 8, 2015 Supreme Court decision on banning the Bt talong field trials and the nullification of the Department of Agriculture (DA) Administrative Order No. 8 which served as guidelines for the regulation of GM plants in the country. Law Education Specialist Atty. Celeste Ruth Cembrano Mallari presented issues in international trade of GM crops and cited the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures of the World Trade Organization and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Both law experts, recognizing the benefits and potentials of biotech, expressed the need for effective science communicators particularly in advancing the importance and value of biotech research and products to policymakers and key decision makers.
On July 26, the Supreme Court reversed its December 2015 decision on the Bt talong case, stating the mootness of the case, with the field trials having been already completed in 2012.
For updates on biotech developments in the Philippines, visit SEARCA BIC's website.
Research led by Graham Seymour, Professor of Plant Biotechnology in the School of Biosciences at The University of Nottingham has identified a gene that encodes an enzyme which plays a crucial role in controlling softening of the tomato fruit. The gene encodes a pectate lyase, which normally degrades the pectin in the tomato cell walls during ripening.
Professor Seymour said that they have demonstrated in the laboratory that if this gene is turned off, the fruit softens much more slowly, but still show normal changes in color and the accumulation of taste compounds such as acids, sugars, and aroma volatiles. The results of their study could pave the way for new varieties of better tasting tomatoes with improved postharvest life.
For more details, read the news release at The University of Nottingham website.
Researchers at Lancaster University and Liverpool John Moores University have made an important breakthrough in understanding Rubisco, the central plant enzyme responsible for photosynthesis. This breakthrough could help address global food security.
The researchers looked at 75 plant species, including grasses, wild rice, melons, and beans from across the world, to assess the ability of their Rubiscos in assimilating CO2 at different temperature ranges to replicate the effects of a changing climate. They identified a number of superior Rubiscos which could improve photosynthetic efficiency in crops such as wheat and soybean.
Some of these Rubisco enzymes have superior characteristics that now offer the possibility of engineering plants which grow more quickly, and with less need for additional fertilizers. The researchers and their collaborators are working toward improving crops such as rice, cassava, soybean, and cowpea.
For more details, read the news release at the Lancaster University website.
Guard cells are specialized cells in plant epidermis that form stomatal pores. They are derived through specialized cell divisions which are regulated by the transcription factor SPEECHLESS (SPCH). Previously, the transcription factor STOMATAL CARPENTER 1 (SCAP1) was shown to be involved in GC function.
Università degli studi di Milano researchers, led by Giulia Castorina, recently showed that SCAP1 expression can also be observed before any GC differentiation occurs. Analysis of transgenic plants carrying a proSCAP1:GUS-GFP transcriptional fusion indicate that SCAP1 expression peaks simultaneously with the expression of stomatal patterning genes.
Scap1 loss-of-function mutants exhibited reduced number of guard cells whilst SCAP1-overexpressing lines have an increased number of guard cells as well as altered distribution and spacing patterns. These results suggest the role for SCAP1 in guard cell differentiation as well as in guard cells' spacing patterns.
For more information, read the full article in BMC Plant Biology.
Chinese grape species have attracted the attention of breeders due to their resistance to powdery mildew caused by Erysiphe necator. Dániel Pap and Summaira Riaz of the University of California evaluated several Vitis piasezkii accessions for resistance to powdery mildew. The team then analyzed an F1 population of a cross between the susceptible Vitis vinifera and the resistant V. piasezkii DVIT2027.
Researchers identified two major powdery mildew resistance genes on chromosomes 9 (Ren6) and 19 (Ren7). Both loci operate by initiating programmed cell death, but differ significantly in response to speed and degree of resistance. Ren6 confers complete resistance while Ren7 confers only a partial resistance to the disease. A comparison of the resistance conferred by Ren6, Ren7 and Run1 gene from Muscadinia rotundifolia, revealed that the speed and strength of resistance from Ren6 is greater than that of Run1 which is then greater than that of Ren7.
The discovery of the loci in this study offers the potential to combine these with existing loci to develop more durable resistance against the powdery mildew.
For more on this study, read the full article in BMC Plant Biology.
New Breeding Technologies
Researchers from CIBUS in the US report a form of oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis for precision genome editing in plants. This form uses single-stranded oligonucleotides (ssODNs) to generate genome edits at DNA strand lesions made by DNA double strand break reagents.
Using Arabidopsis, the team obtained a high frequency of precise targeted genome edits when ssODNs were introduced into protoplasts pretreated with the glycopeptide antibiotic phleomycin, a nonspecific DNA double strand breaker. Simultaneous delivery of ssODN and a site-specific DNA double strand breaker, either through TALENs or CRISPR/Cas9, resulted in a significantly greater targeted genome editing frequency compared with treatment with DNA double strand-breaking reagents alone.
The researchers then tested a combination of ssODN and CRISPR/Cas9 to develop an herbicide tolerant flax (Linum usitatissimum) by editing the 5'-ENOLPYRUVYLSHIKIMATE-3-PHOSPHATE SYNTHASE (EPSPS) genes. The edits occurred at sufficient frequency that the team could regenerate whole plants from edited protoplasts without selection. Plants were screened for tolerance to glyphosate in spray tests. Analysis of their progeny reveals the expected Mendelian segregation of the EPSPS edits.
For more information, read the full article in Plant Physiology.
Beyond Crop Biotech
There has been resurgence in the use of protoplast systems for rapid screening of gene silencing and genome editing targets for siRNA, miRNA, and CRISPR technologies. For switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), it is necessary to develop plants with decreased cell wall recalcitrance to reduce processing costs in biofuel production. Hence, transgenic plants have been generated with altered cell wall chemistry, but with limited success.
Due to the cost, time, and effort required to screen transgenic plants, a protoplast system that can provide data at an early stage has potential to eliminate low performing candidate genes/targets prior to development of transgenic plants. However, protoplast isolation in switchgrass has proven costly, requiring expensive enzymes and high DNA quantities.
University of Tennessee researchers, led by Kellie P. Burris, reported a low-cost protoplast isolation system using a mesophyll culture approach and a cell suspension culture. Results from this work showed a significant cost reduction compared to previous methods of protoplast isolation in switchgrass. Furthermore, the efficiency of transformation was optimized despite a significant reduction in DNA quantity.
The method developed in this study paves the way for more efficient and cost-effective development of transgenic plants.
For more on this promising system, read the article in Plant Cell Reports.
VIB released a book titled The GMO Revolution authored by Wim Grunewald and Jo Bury. The book offers a balanced and evidence-based insight on how GM crops could be useful in solving current and future issues facing agriculture: from potatoes that can protect themselves against late blight, to trees that can be used in biofuel production, to rice that contains more vitamins and wheat with a safe form of gluten.
Get a copy from VIB.