Crop Biotech Update (November 2, 2017)
UPDATED POCKET KS ON BENEFITS OF GM CROPS
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Chinese scientists develop new rice varieties that can be planted in seawater, which can potentially provide food for 200 million people.

Scientists have long been working on rice that can grow in seawater, and finally commercially viable varieties are now being tested. Around 200 rice varieties are under testing near the Yellow Sea coastal city of Qingdao in Shandong province to see which ones perform best in salty conditions. Seawater is pumped into the fields, diluted, and then channelled into the rice paddies. The researchers projected that the rice varieties would produce 4.5 tons per hectare, but one variety already showed promising results by producing 9.3 tons per hectare.

"The test results greatly exceeded our expectations," said Liu Shiping, one of the researchers and professor of agriculture at Yangzhou University.

Read more from the Genetic Literacy Project.

Technology has become the blight of the Irish potato famine pathogen. A research team led by Professor Jonathan Jones at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich Research Park has successfully modified a potato to resist the devastating disease ‘late blight' by introducing a blight-resistant gene from a wild potato to the popular Maris Piper.

Blight is a serious problem globally, and was a significant contributor to the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. "The first year of the Maris Piper field trial has worked brilliantly", said Professor Jones. "We've observed resistance to late blight in all the lines.

This new blight-resistant gene introduced to the Maris Piper offers the promise of furthering its crop strength, and even the possibility of avoiding the use of chemical fungicides in its cultivation altogether. Field trials at Norwich are continuing, and next year the team will begin to explore the genetic traits that can improve tuber quality. The team hopes to produce a crop that is less prone to bruise damage and help improve the quality and sustainability of potato crop in the UK.

For more details, read the news article at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council website.

Stakeholders in the cotton sub-sector in Kenya are eagerly awaiting the introduction of Bt cotton in the country. This was raised at a recent workshop to prepare officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries for the adoption of the GM crop. The workshop, also attended by representatives from Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives, was held in Embu, north-east of Nairobi on October 16-17, 2017 and aimed at developing skills and capacity for effective management of the GM crop.

Dr. Charles Waturu, the principal researcher for Bt cotton in Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), informed participants that the trials for Bollgard I® and Bollgard II® cotton were successfully completed about 10 years ago. According to Dr. Waturu, the trials showed that transgenic cotton effectively controlled the populations of African bollworm and had no significant effect on non-target pest species. "Growing Bt cotton will significantly reduce the amount of insecticides used by Kenyan farmers, from 12 to about three sprays per season, thus reducing the cost of production and increasing income from cotton farming," he pointed out.

Anthony Muriithi, the head of Fibre Crops Directorate agreed that Bt cotton is the way to go for Kenya. He acknowledged that the introduction of GM crops will be a remedy to poor cotton yields recorded currently. "The country currently produces approximately 25,000 bales which is only 10.4% of her potential and once Bt cotton is commercialized, we will see an upsurge in cotton production," he noted. Some participants were, however concerned that the country's political dynamics could derail efforts to expedite the adoption of the crop. "Political leaders must show political goodwill and lead the course towards adoption and commercialization of Bt cotton," a participant said.

ISAAA Senior Programme Officer Dr. Faith Nguthi trained the stakeholders on effective science communication to promote understanding of the Bt cotton technology. Dr. Nguthi emphasized that in order to enhance trust and facilitate uptake of GM technology, there is a need to develop messages that are credible. The workshop was organized by Fibre Crops Directorate in collaboration with ISAAA and the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB-Kenya).

For more information on the article reference mkarembu@isaaa.org.

Gene editing technology, such as the use of CRISPR-Cas9, could revolutionize the development of high-yielding, drought-, disease- and pest-resistant, and quality plant seeds; with lesser time of development compared to current breeding methods. These were highlighted by a panel of expert scientists at the 2017 Borlaug Dialogue conference held on October 18-20, 2017 in Des Moines, Iowa.

According to Feng Zhang, the originator of the technology who is a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, CRISPR-Cas9 is almost as simple as editing a Microsoft Word document on a computer. To edit genes, the Cas9 protein is programmed to create an RNA search string, which can search and edit paired DNA to change a genome to get desired results in plants, Zheng explained. "There's a lot of exciting opportunity to apply this technology in both human health and in agriculture," he said.

Scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) also aim to use the breakthrough technology to help smallholder farmers in the developing world address food security, nutrition shortcomings and economic threats to their livelihoods caused by climate change, pests and disease. They acknowledge the potential of the technology to reduce the use of pesticides, and to boost nutrition through biofortification of crops.

"We want sustainable agriculture that provides food and nutrition security for all, while enabling biodiversity conservation," said Kevin Pixley, who leads the Seeds of Discovery project and the Genetic Resources Program at CIMMYT. "CRISPR-Cas9 is an affordable technology that can help us close the technology gap between the resource rich and resource poor farmers of the world." Gene-edited varieties could also lessen the risk of investing in fertilizers, grain storage or other technologies, thereby contributing to "double benefits" for smallholder farmers, Pixley stressed.

More more details, read the news release from CIMMYT.

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