News

Global

Important food grains will have significant reduction in yield as the climate warms because rising temperatures boost the metabolic rate and population increase of insect pests, according to a study published in Science.

"Climate change will have a negative impact on crops," said Scott Merrill of the University of Vermont, one of the authors of the study. "We're going to see increased pest pressure with climate change."

The research team observed how the insect pests of rice, maize, and wheat would respond to various climate scenarios. Their findings showed that increasing global temperatures would lead to an increase in crop losses due to insect pest attacks, particularly in temperate areas. Losses are projected to rise by 10-25 percent per degree of increase in temperature. The researchers explain that the losses are due to the increase in insect metabolism and population growth rates. When it becomes hotter, the insect's metabolisms increase, so they tend to eat more. In terms of population growth, insect population grows best in an optimal temperature. If it is too cold or too hot, the population growth is slow. Thus, the losses will be greatest in temperate areas, but less severe in the tropics.

"Temperate regions are not at that optimal temperature, so if the temperature increases there, populations will grow faster," said Merrill, an ecologist who studies plant-crop interactions. "But insects in the tropics are already close to their optimal temperature, so the populations will actually grow slower. It's just too hot for them."

Read more about the study in Science.

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The world's top five agri-universities who call themselves A5, have agreed to fight hunger together. University of California Davis, Cornell University, China Agricultural University, University of Sao Paulo, and Wageningen University & Research have agreed to work together in achieving zero hunger. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include eradicating hunger in the world by 2030.

The A5 met during the international SDG Conference, held in Wageningen on August 30-31, 2018. They will first focus on education with a special role for students and staff exchange and work together on research. The five universities have agreed to cooperate in developing new educational and research programs to transform food systems. To do this, they will empower students and educate the new leaders of tomorrow. The universities also want to stimulate the exchange of students and staff members to increase their knowledge.

For more details, read the news article from Wageningen University & Research.

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Africa

Mohammed Adams Nasiru, Former head of Peasant Farmers' Association in Ghana declared his stance to support agricultural biotechnology. The Association has been known as a critic of biotechnology. Nasiru shifted his support after receiving accurate information on the technology from the scientific experts on the field.

"A lot of us were misled into believing GMOs are bad, but now I know the truth. I am very comfortable with GMOs… I don't think there is any harm in going with GMOs," Nasiru said. He was the national president of the Association from 2005 to 2014 and has expressed strong opposition against biotechnology. After learning about the actual benefits of the technology, Nasiru revealed that biotech critics fail to seek the larger interest of farmers. "The campaign earlier was done by people getting money from somewhere and getting onto the street to make noise. But after this noise, we have met the scientific community in Ghana and outside. Some of us have understood what they are trying to explain. Those kicking against the technology have their own parochial interests," he said. "Some people in Accra made us to understand GMOs were bad. Until we got OFAB (Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology) talking to us, coming to the grassroots to talk to us, that's when things changed." he added.

Read the original article from the Cornell Alliance for Science.

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Americas

Researchers from the University of Minnesota (UMN) and partners found new soybean genes linked to aphid resistance. The results of their investigation is published in The Plant Genome journal.

Aphid is a tiny pest of soybeans and other crops worldwide, causing billions of dollars in crop losses. Thus, discovering resistance genes is vital towards developing soybean varieties with robust aphid resistance. This is according to Aaron Lorenz from UMN's Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. "There are very few commercially-available varieties of soybean with aphid resistance genes. Newly-identified genes can serve as backup sources of resistance if the ones currently used are no longer useful," Lorenz stressed.

The researchers used previously published research that reported genetic information on soybean varieties with an objective of finding the parts of the soybean genome that contain genes linked to aphid resistance. They scanned the soybean genome for small genetic landmarks called Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Then they tested if any of these landmarks were present more often in soybean varieties with aphid resistance. Lorenz and team discovered a number of genetic landmarks that were more common in aphid-resistant soybean varieties. Some of these landmarks were in genetic regions near aphid resistance genes, while many others were in genetic regions not previously associated with aphid resistance.

Read more from the article published in the Crop Science Society of America. The research article is available in The Plant Genome.

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On September 3, 2018, A Brazilian court has issued a ruling that lifts the ban on glyphosate in the country. Glyphosate is used in herbicides such as Roundup. The decision ensures growers continued access to glyphosate-based herbicides. The court decision comes in favor of a remedy filed by the Federal Government to overturn a previous injunction before it took effect and ensure that Brazilian growers can continue to use glyphosate-based products. Brazil, the world's biggest exporter of soybeans, planted 33.7 million hectares biotech soybeans in 2017.

Previously, a Brazilian judge issued an injunction that could prohibit the registration and use of glyphosate-based herbicides and several other crop protection products in the country. The injunction was not a ruling on glyphosate safety, but only related to delays in routine regulatory reviews of crop protection products.

For more, read the news release.

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In 2018, Brazil has completed 20 years since GMOs were adopted in agriculture. Throughout this period, what stands out are the benefits for farmers resulting from planting genetically modified (GM) soybeans, corn, and cotton. There has been, for example, a reduction in the application of pesticides per hectare and there have been fewer losses caused by pests. Consequently, the productivity and yield of the GM crops have been, on average, higher than conventional crops. The data is part of a study, 20 Years of GMOs in Brazil: Environmental, Economic, and Social Impacts, which was conducted by the Agroconsult consultancy with support from the Council for Information on Biotechnology (CIB Brazil).

Throughout the period being analyzed, the profit obtained per hectare from GM soybeans was up to 26% higher than the conventional variety. For corn, the performance differential reached 64% in the summer harvest and 152% in the winter harvest. In the case of cotton, GM seeds have a margin of 12% higher than non-modified ones. "The positive effect of this technology on agriculture and on the quality of life, level of education and profit for the population is unquestionable," says executive-director of the CIB, Adriana Brondani.

Read the complete report from CIB.

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Scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) have transferred a biochemical pathway found in sorghum, which produces a weed-killing compound, into rice plants. Sorgoleone, a compound secreted by sorghum helps plants fight weeds and works so well that some other crops struggle to grow in fields planted with sorghum.

The scientists at ARS's Natural Product Utilization Research Unit (NPURU) in Oxford, Mississippi, have looked at sorghum's weed-inhibiting properties, which can be transferred to other crops such as rice and used as a bioherbicide. Producing sorgoleone in other crops would give those plants the ability to fight weeds and reduce reliance on synthetic herbicides, says NPURU molecular biologist Scott Baerson.

According to Baerson, nothing was known about sorgoleone prior to their research. The NPURU team reached a milestone when they were able to transfer the sorgoleone compound into rice. Rice plants with sorgoleone would require less herbicides to control weeds, while growers would spend less on buying and applying chemicals.

For more details, read the ARS research news.

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Asia and the Pacific

A study published in Nature reports about a gene that improves plants' ability to absorb nitrogen, which can help develop high-yielding varieties of rice, wheat, and other staple crops that would need less fertilizer.

According to plant geneticist Xiangdong Fu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and co-authors, modern crops cannot absorb nitrogen as efficiently as traditional crops can, thus fertilizers are applied to help modern crops grow. However, when nitrogen-rich runoff from farm fields reaches rivers, lakes and oceans, it can feed massive algal blooms that consume oxygen and suffocate aquatic organisms. "That's why we need to look for new varieties that can produce high yields, but with less fertilizer," Fu added.

Fu and colleagues studied the role of DELLA proteins that have been pinpointed as the cause of modern crops' poor nitrogen absorption and short stature. These proteins are disrupted by growth hormones in traditional crops, while in modern plants, DELLA proteins thrive because of their immunity to the hormones. Thus, the team searched for ways to combat DELLA proteins. They scanned the DNA of 36 dwarf rice varieties and found two genes that govern nitrogen consumption. One of the genes codes for DELLA, and the other codes for growth-regulating factor 4 (GRF4), which has been known to be involved only in grain size and yield. Fu and team further found that GRF4 counteracts the effects of DELLA by influencing the plants to absorb and metabolize nitrogen and carbon to support growth. Then they bred rice plants to develop a better concentration of the GRF4 protein. This leads to high yielding short plants which need less nitrogen than conventional plants.

Read more information from Nature.

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Europe

A study conducted by researchers from The Sainsbury Laboratory, the University of Zurich, and the University of Washington has identified the mechanisms by which a common plant co-receptor can regulate many different signaling pathways through protein phosphorylation that the researchers call a ‘phosphocode'.

Cell-surface receptors are important to plants for their survival. To activate receptor kinases—components of dynamic protein complexes that perceive and respond to molecular signals from outside the cell to control all aspects of plant life—shape-complementary co-receptors are recruited in response to specific stimuli.

Professor Cyril Zipfel, Chair of Molecular & Cellular Plant Physiology at the University of Zurich said their study furthers understanding of one of the best-characterized plant co-receptors. Professor Zipfel added that they now have an increased understanding of the key functions that control plant immunity, growth, and development.

For more details, read the TSL News.

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The history of eggplant has been obscure for a long time. Historical documents and genetic data show that eggplant was first domesticated in Asia, but most of its wild relatives are from Africa. Researchers from the Natural History Museums of London (NHM) and Finland (University of Helsinki) have now described the origin of the eggplant and its direct relatives.

The researchers sequenced the plastomes of eggplant and of 22 species directly related to the eggplant. The eggplant is a member of the genus Solanum within the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Solanum also accounts for two other globally important food crops, tomato and potato. But in contrast to these New World crops, the eggplant hails from Asia, where it was first domesticated somewhere in the region of China and India. Taxonomists only recently answered the question why many wild relatives of the cultivated eggplant are found in the savannahs of Africa.

The team found that the group containing the relatives of eggplant originated in northeastern Africa some two million years ago. Plants then dispersed both eastwards to tropical Asia and southwards to southern and western Africa. In tropical Asia, the dispersal event gave rise to a species that scientists call Solanum insanum, which is where populations of domesticated eggplant came from. What really startled the researchers was the fact that the dispersion of the group to Asia seemed to result from a single dispersal event from northern Africa to tropical Asia rather than a linear step-wise expansion from Africa to Asia.

For more details, read the press release from the University of Helsinki.

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Research

Based on the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, scientists from Denmark develop Cas9-mediated protein evolution reaction (CasPER) to build a library of diverse enzymes, which may be used in the industry and academe. The methodology involves the usage of error-prone PCR (epPCR) and CRISPR-Cas9-mediated homology-directed repair (HDR) to edit the DNA of targeted enzymes and produce variants.

Scientist Jay Keasling and colleagues from The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability in Denmark utilized epPCR to generate different DNA sequences for insertion via HDR to the CRISPR-Cas9-generated cut site in the enzyme DNA. The team tested the method in Saccharomyces cerevisiae by targeting two essential enzymes in the mevalonate pathway. Results showed 11-fold increase in the expression of targeted enzymes, and sequencing confirmed the integrity of the inserted DNA. CasPER also shows to have an editing efficiency of more than 98 percent.

CasPER allows for simultaneous engineering of several enzyme variants and large-fragment inserts. It may be used in other experiments in the industry and the academe.

For more information, read the research article in Metabolic Engineering.

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Capsaicinoids are responsible for the burning sensation or pungency in hot peppers (Capsicum spp.). These compounds enable the resistance of Capsicum plants to diseases like Fusarium and the plant seeds' dissemination by birds, which cannot detect the pungency. Consumers mainly use hot peppers as vegetable and food additive. Capsaicinoid is mainly controlled by the Pun1 gene and is also affected by quantitative trait loci (QTLs). Researchers have conducted studies on these loci, but have not identified useful candidate genes for the trait. 

Scientist Byoung-Cheorl Kang and colleagues from Seoul National University and Rural Development Administration in South Korea used QTL mapping and Genome-wide association (GWAS) to detect QTLs for capsaicinoid content in Capsicum. Recombinant inbred lines produced from parentals "Perennial" (pungent small pepper line) and "Dempsey" (nonpungent bell pepper cultivar) are used in the experiment. They found five candidate genes controlling capsaicinoid content using their experimental data and previously available data. These genes include pAMT, C4H, 4CL, CSE, and FatA from the phenylpropanoid and fatty acid pathways. These genes will be useful in elucidating the mechanism of capsaicinoid biosynthesis and in breeding for high-pungency peppers.

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

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New Breeding Technologies

The DELLA protein is responsible for repressing growth in plants leading to a dwarf trait. A fully functional DELLA protein is sensitive to gibberellic acid (GA), which promotes DELLA degradation and thus plant growth. Several loss-of-function mutations in the DELLA-encoding gene PROCERA are present in cultivated crops like tomato, barley, and rice

Researcher Laurence Tomlinson and colleagues from Norwich Research Park in UK and University of Minnesota in the USA used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the gene coding for DELLA proteins in tomato. Tomatoes are economically important and widely studied for traits such as disease resistance, fruit shape, and color. Aiming for a tomato with a dwarf trait will reduce the need for additional mechanical support, pruning, and side support management.

Results of the study showed the generation of three transgene-free heritable genotypes through genome editing. The first genotype is homozygous PROD/PROD, which confer the dwarf trait and partial responsiveness to GA; the second one is heterozygous PROD/PRO, which had intermediate height when young but dwarf when matured. The mutation introduced is therefore dominant. The third genotype is also a loss-of-function mutation that conferred traits like the DELLA-silenced plant. 

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

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Many studies reported the usefulness of the CRISPR gene editing technology using Cas9 and Cas12a (Cpf1) nucleases in humans and crops. These two nucleases differ by their recognition site, RNA requirement, and multiplexing ability, that is, Cas12a has a different protospacer adjacent motif (PAM) recognition site "NGG" requires only the CRISPR RNA (crRNA), and allows multiplexing. By contrast, Cas9 recognizes the "TTTV" PAM site, requires both crRNA and trans-activating RNA (tracrRNA), and does not allow multiplexing. These differences made the two nucleases deemed complementary to each other by scientists.

Scientist Kan Wang from Crop Bioengineering Center and Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University and colleagues see the lack of direct comparison between the two nucleases in one experiment. Thus, they compared the activities and specificities of the two enzymes in maize by targeting the glossy2 gene, which has sequences that can be recognized by both nucleases. Results showed that Cas9 had better performance in editing the gene compared with Cas12a, that is, Cas9 had 90 to100 percent edits, whereas Cas12a had 0 to 60 percent successful targets. However, they said that optimization is still needed to further test the activity of Cas12a in their experiments.

Read the full article in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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Transgenes that originally bear the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing complex are removed from desirable edited plants through sexual segregation. However, this method cannot be done in asexually propagated perennial plants, which require several years to reach sexual maturity. Thus, scientist Yi Li from Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture in Connecticut, USA, and colleagues developed a method for producing non-transgenic CRISPR-Cas9-edited plants without sexual segregation.

The team targeted the phytoene desaturase (PDS) gene in tetraploid tobacco for Agrobacterium-mediated transient CRISPR-Cas9 expression and screened for mutants via Illumina sequencing, followed by High Resolution Melting (HRM) analysis. Through the method, they identified 17.2 percent non-transgenic plants. The method will be useful in the gene editing of crops that are difficult to regenerate, perennial, or asexually reproduced.

For more information, read the article in Horticulture Research.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Scientists from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) state their plans on asking approval from U.S. regulators about breeding transgenic chestnut trees with non-engineered trees to restore the species. These transgenic trees are highly regulated in the U.S. and would be the first GM tree to be released in the wild if the regulators approve of the group's plan.

American chestnut once dominated North American forests until a fungal infection called chestnut blight appeared in the 1900s and essentially killed the species. In 1990, tree geneticists William Powell and Charles Maynard of SUNY ESF started "taking the weapon away from the fungus" by inserting the wheat gene for oxalate oxidase or OxO through genetic engineering. OxO breaks down oxalic acid, which is released by the pathogens and is the compound that kills the trees. In 2014, the group released Darling 58, a transgenic chestnut with heritable blight resistance trait.

The plan received mixed reactions from its audience, with experts saying that the approval process would be long, cultural and spiritual aspects should also be considered, and the evolution of the fungus is at risk. The SUNY ESF group countered the last, as they said that their tree does not kill the fungus. By contrast, conventional chestnut breeder Jared Westbrook of the American Chestnut Foundation supported the idea, saying that the transgenic tree is better at deterring the disease compared with traditionally bred ones.

For more information, read the article in Science.

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The genome sequence of opium poppy has been released by scientists at the University of York in partnership with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK, and international colleagues. The genome sequence reveals how opium poppy evolved to produce the pharmaceutical compounds used to make vital medicines. Their work has shown the origins of the genetic pathway leading to the production of the cough suppressant noscapine and painkiller drugs morphine and codeine.

The scientists produced a high quality assembly of the 2.7 GigaBase genome sequence distributed across 11 chromosomes. They identified a large cluster of 15 genes that encode enzymes involved in two distinct biosynthetic pathways involved in the production of both noscapine and the compounds leading to codeine and morphine. The genome assembly also allowed the researchers to identify ancestral genes that came together to produce the STORR gene fusion responsible for the major step on the pathway to morphine and codeine.

For more details, read the University of York News.

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Announcements

What: 2018 International Conference on Biotechnology and Bioengineering (ICBB2018)

When: October 24-26, 2018

Where: Budapest, Hungary

For more details, visit the conference website.

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