A weekly summary of world developments in agri-biotech for developing countries, produced by the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications SEAsiaCenter (ISAAA)
January 16, 2019

In This Week’s Issue:


• Blueprint for Plant's Immune Response has been Found
• Scientists Identify How Plants Sense Temperature
• Research Finds Extreme Opponents of GM Foods Know the Least but Think They Know the Most

Asia and the Pacific
• NRGene and Toyota Decode Strawberry Genome to Develop Better Varieties
• Approval of Monsanto's GM Cotton Seed Patent to Boost India's Biotech Industry

• Mechanism Behind Plant Memory has been Unraveled
• Improved Crops Can Double Agricultural Production in Europe
• EFSA: GM Maize (MON 89034x1507xMON 88017x59122xDAS-40278-9) and Soybean (A2704-12) are Safe for Release

• Rice Plants Engineered for Better Photosynthesis Make More Rice
• Meta-analysis of Soil Enzymatic Responses to Bt Crops

New Breeding Technologies
• Scientists Report Functionally Diverse Type V CRISPR-Cas Systems
• Gene Editing for Developing GM Spicy Tomatoes

Beyond Crop Biotech
• Gene-edited Tilapia Not Classified as GMO in Argentina
• Biotechnology to Possibly Address Forest Health Problems

Document Reminders
• Bt Brinjal: The Bangladesh Experience



Researchers from Washington State University have discovered the way plants respond to disease-causing organisms, and how they protect themselves. Results published in the journal Plant Physiology show how adenosine 5-triphospate (ATP), a part of DNA and energy production in cells, becomes a signal for injury or infection. That signal triggers defense responses in plants.

David Gang, WSU professor said, "We found the pathways that connect ATP to plant cell responses protecting the plant." The research team used wild plants as well as plants with improvements in the major pathways of plant defense. The scientists would trigger an ATP response in a modified sample to trace the signal's path to the receptor, then reproduce that in the other samples. Extra-cellular ATP turns on defense responses, partly through these major defense pathways, and partly independently of them, but they all work together.

The receptor that receives the damage signal ATP was found in 2014, but until now scientists didn't know how this signal caused an immune response in plants. "Future plant breeding can now increase plant defense or resistance based on knowing these pathways," Gang said.

For more details, read the article in CAHNRS News.


The mechanism of plant response to temperature has been elusive to scientists. Dr. Meng Chen, associate professor of cell biology at the University of California, Riverside said that it is important to understand how plants respond to temperature to predict not only future food availability but also develop new technologies to help plants cope with increasing temperature.

Chen is leading a team to explore the role of phytochrome B, a molecular signaling pathway that may play a pivotal role in plant response to temperature. In a paper published in Nature Communications, Chen and colleagues describe the genetic triggers that prepare plants for growth under different temperature conditions using Arabidopsis.

Chen and his team examined the role of phytochrome B in Arabidopsis at 21oC and 27oC under red light. The monochromatic wavelength allowed the team to study how this particular plant sensor functions without interference from other wavelengths of light. They found that phytochrome B is a temperature sensor during the day in summer, and without this photoreceptor, plant response is significantly reduced.

Aside from identifying the function of phytochrome B, Chen's research also points to the role of HEMERA, a transcription activator that turns on the temperature-responsive genes that control plant growth. "We found the master control for temperature sensing in plants," Chen said. "HEMERA is conserved in all plants, from moss to flowering plants."

For more details, read the article in UC Riverside News.


People with the most extreme views opposing genetically modified (GM) foods think they know most about GM food science, but actually, they know the least, according to new research published in Nature Human Behaviour. The research was a collaboration between researchers at the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Marketing and psychology researchers asked more than 2,000 U.S. and European adults for their opinions about GM foods. The surveys asked the respondents how well they thought they understood GM foods, then tested how much they actually knew with a battery of true-false questions on general science and genetics. The researchers found that despite the scientific consensus that GM foods are safe for human consumption, many people oppose their use. More than 90 percent of the respondents reported some level of opposition to GM foods.

"This result is perverse, but is consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism," said Philip Fernbach, the study's lead author and professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business. "Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do."

Nicholas Light, a Leeds School of Business PhD candidate in marketing suggests that changing people's minds first requires them to appreciate what they do not know. He added that without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus.

Read more about this research in CU Boulder Today.

Asia and the Pacific

NRGene and Toyota decoded the genome of a commercial strawberry, which is an important milestone in the development of high-quality, locally-produced fruits for the Japanese market. NRGene's assembly of the strawberry genome, together with Toyota's GRAS-Di DNA analysis technology, is expected to boost the development of better strawberries for the Japanese market.

According to NRGene, strawberries was one of the most complex genome assembled using their DeNovoMAGIC 3.0 genomic big-data artificial intelligence (AI) tool, as they have two copies of every gene.

Toyota, known for its business of making cars, has been involved in enriching communities through initiatives that positively impact the environment since 1999. Aside from the strawberry genome analysis, Toyota was also involved in the identification of disease-resistant sugarcane genes, and they intend to continue pursuing projects with NRGene that further support the development of the agricultural industry.

Read the press release from NRGene.


India's Supreme Court has approved Monsanto's claim on the patents of its genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, reversing an earlier verdict by the New Delhi High Court. The decision has been well-received by international agricultural companies such as Bayer, Dupont Pioneer, and Syngenta, while major farmers' organizations in the country have also expressed their support as they look forward to acquiring new technologies and varieties of GM crops.

Monsanto's GM cotton seed trait is the only GM crop allowed in India. In 2003, the New Delhi High Court approved the crop along with an improved variety in 2006, placing India among the top cotton producing countries in the world. The High Court's decision was overturned in 2018 after Indian seed company Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd (NSL) claimed that Monsanto was not allowed to claim patents on its GM cotton seeds under the country's Patent Act.

M. Ramasami, Chairman of the Federation of Seed Industry of India, said that the current ruling will boost investments in the country's biotech industry such as advancements in seed technologies and farm processes, which would help Indian farmers compete in the international market.

For more, read the article on Commodity Online.


A study conducted by scientists from the University of Nottingham and the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Utrecht uncovered the mechanism that allows plants to remember changes in their environment.

To figure out how plants sense and ‘remember' changes in their environment, the scientists focused on the polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) protein, which is known to play a key role in cell identity, developmental transitions, and the establishment of environmental memory. Plants have different versions of this PRC2 protein that are responsible for different functions. For example, VRN2-PRC2 regulates vernalization in which certain genes are silenced upon long-term exposure to cold thereby encoding a memory of cold.

The research team discovered that the VRN2 protein directly senses and responds to signals from the environment, but the protein is extremely unstable and broken down when it is not required, therefore, the PRC2 also remains inactive until required. However, the protein accummulates under suitable conditions. The VRN2 protein was previously identified as a positive regulator of vernalization, but scientists have now explained the "proteolytic mechanism" behind the environmentally-induced accumulation of VRN2 in response to cold temperatures specific to flowering plants.

For more details, read the news article in European Scientist.


Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is working within the CropBooster-P EU project on a roadmap to make agricultural crops future-proof. The CropBooster-P EU project will develop a pathway to sustainably double Europe's crop yields by 2050 and prepare these crops for the needs and the future climate of Europe. These crops should have higher yields, optimal use of water and minerals, and the highest possible nutritional value and quality.

According to WUR's René Klein Lankhorst, doubling crop yield of European agriculture by 2050 is feasible by optimizing photosynthesis. "The current agricultural crops now convert a surprisingly low percentage of sunlight into plant biomass; some 0.5 to 1%. Doubling the percentage to 1 to 2% is all we need and this has already been scientifically proven to be possible." Lankhorst adds that improved crops will also have to use water and minerals such as nitrogen and phosphorus very efficiently.

For more details about CropBooster-P EU, read the news article from WUR.


The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released scientific opinions on the assessment of GM maize (MON 89034x1507xMON 88017x59122xDAS-40278-9) and soybean (A2704-12) concluding that both are safe for release.

The five-event stack GM maize and their subcombinations were subjected to molecular characterization, comparative analysis (agronomic, phenotypic and compositional characteristics) and toxicological, allergenicity, and nutritional assessments, and found that the GM maize does not give rise to food and feed safety and nutritional concerns. It was proven to be as safe and nutritionally equivalent to its non-GM counterparts.

The herbicide tolerant soybean (A2704-12), which was submitted for renewal of authorization, was evaluated based on post-market environmental monitoring reports, a systematic search and evaluation of literature, updated bioinformatic analyses, and additional documents or studies performed by or on behalf of the applicant. Based on the results, EFSA concluded that there are no new hazards, modified exposure or scientific uncertainties that would change the conclusions of the original risk assessment on the GM soybean.

Read the EFSA scientific opinions of GM maize and GM soybean for more details.


A study published in the journal Molecular Plant reports that a new bioengineering approach for boosting photosynthesis in rice plants could increase grain yield by up to 27%. Called GOC bypass, the approach enriches plant cells with CO2 that would otherwise be lost through photorespiration. The genetically engineered plants were greener and larger and showed increased photosynthetic efficiency and productivity under field conditions, with particular advantages in bright light.

The main genetic approach in increasing the yield potential of major crops focuses on photosynthesis. One way to increase photosynthesis is to bypass photorespiration, a light-dependent process in which oxygen is taken up and CO2 is released. Several studies conducted in the past introduced photorespiratory bypasses into plants, but most of the experiments were carried out using Arabidopsis. In the new study, the research team developed a strategy to essentially divert CO2 from photorespiration to photosynthesis. They converted a molecule called glycolate, a product of photorespiration, to CO2 using three rice enzymes: glycolate oxidase, oxalate oxidase, and catalase. To deploy GOC bypass, which was named for the three enzymes, the researchers introduced genes encoding the enzymes into rice chloroplasts.

The results showed that the photorespiratory rate was suppressed by 18%-31% compared to normal, and the net photosynthetic rate increased by 15%-22%, primarily due to higher concentrations of cellular CO2 used for photosynthesis. Compared to plants that were not genetically engineered, the GOC plants were consistently greener and larger, with an above-ground dry weight that was 14%-35% higher. Moreover, starch grains grew in size by 100% and increased in number per cell by 37%. In the spring seeding season, grain yield improved by 7% to 27%.

For other details, read the paper's abstract.


Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and partners conducted a global meta-analysis examining the responses of soil enzymatic activity to Bt crops. The results are published in the Science of the Total Environment.

The researchers initially quantified the responses of soil enzymatic activity to Bt crop cultivations with or without Bt residues incorporation. Then they explored how the responses of soil enzymatic activity varied across Bt crops or in different growth periods, and revealed the relative contributions on the responses.

Results showed that dehydrogenase and urease generally positively responded to Bt crops. Dehydrogenase, which reflects the total metabolic activity of viable soil microbes, when significantly increased, may result in a higher rate of soil organic matter mineralization or the transformation of organic nutrients and nutrients into inorganic forms. Urease, one of the enzymes participating in nitrogen mineralization, when increased might lead to boosting the nitrogen cycling. It was observed that significant responses usually appeared under Bt cotton or in middle growth stages. It was also reported that the enzymatic responses attributed more to Bt crop properties than to soil properties.

Read more in Science of the Total Environment.

New Breeding Technologies

CRISPR-Cas9 systems have been the "talk of the won" in various fields involving gene editing. Researchers from Arbor Biotechnologies and National Institutes of Health in the USA searched the metagenomic database and systematically found two more subtypes of type V CRISPR-Cas systems. The results are published in Science.

According to the report, the additional Cas12 effectors exhibit a range of activities, including target and collateral cleavage of single-stranded RNA and DNA, as well as double-stranded DNA nicking and cleavage. Such diversity of nuclease activities may imply how an ancient transposase may have evolved into various type V effectors and broaden the nucleic acid detection and CRISPR toolbox.

Read more information from Science.


With the development of gene editing tools, experts from the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil explored on the possibility of engineering spicy tomatoes. The paper is published in Trends in Plant Science.

The primary goal of developing spicy tomatoes was to easily mass produce capsaicinoids, which are secondary metabolites that give chilli peppers their spicy flavor and has been proven to have health benefits and industrial applications. According to the researchers, two genome editing techniques could be used together to turn on the capsaicinoid biosynthesis in tomato. The first one is the transcriptional activator-like effectors (TALEs), a set of proteins secreted by pathogenic bacteria, Xanthomonas spp., when they infect plant hosts. Rapid assembly of the TALE genes into a single T-DNA vector would allow simultaneous upregulation of the expression of some key capsaicinoid biosynthesis genes. Actual experimentation would further exhibit whether the transcript levels achieved will be enough for the capsaicinoid pathway to be functional.

The second technique is the use of genome engineering for targeted replacement of promoters. This was proven to be effective in tomato using a constitutive 35S promoter inserted in ANT1 gene, which encodes a transcription factor involved in regulating anthocyanin production. Promoter regions of the inactive genes in the capsaicinoid pathway could be replaced with endogenous tomato fruit-specific promoters to produce cisgenic plants with transcriptionally active genes. Actual testing will reveal if the products are fully functioning, biochemically active, and catalyze the right reactions.

Read the article in Trends in Plant Science.

Beyond Crop Biotech

Gene-edited tilapia (FLT 01) will not be classified as genetically modified organism (GMO) in Argentina, according to the National Advisory Commission on Agricultural Biotechnology (CONABIA).

The new line of tilapia was developed by Intrexon and its subsidiary AquaBounty Technologies, which is known for its AquaAdvantage salmon. FLT 01 has been developed to demonstrate a 70% improvement in fillet yield, a 16% increase in growth rate, and a 14% improvement in feed conversion ratio. According to CONABIA, FLT 01 was developed using gene editing techniques and do not contain a foreign DNA or a new combination of genetic material, thus it is not considered as a GMO.

Read more from The Fish Site.


The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report that states that biotechnology may be part of the means in protecting forest trees against destructive pests and disease outbreaks. By using biotechnology to introduce pest-resistant traits to trees, threats such as the introduction of non-native tree pests and diseases hastened by climate change and global trade and travel may be mitigated. Two tree species, the American Chestnut and hybrid poplars, are currently under field trials to address forest health issues.

The report also recommends further research to improve the use of biotechnology as a forest health tool. Challenges such as the poor understanding of how the trees' genetic mechanisms resist pests, the delay of identifying genetic changes in trees due to complex genomes, and the lack of information on the effects of releasing new tree genotypes to the environment were identified. The report also stated the importance of studying the societal responses to the use of biotechnology to address forest health threats for sound decision making. Furthermore, respectful, deliberative, transparent, and inclusive processes of engaging with people to increase understanding of forest health threats and biotechnology were pointed out.

If pursued, the development of these biotech trees can decrease the severity of threats to the North American forests, therefore increasing the chances of having and retaining a healthy forest ecosystem.

For more details, read the U.S. National Academies' report highlights and press release.

Document Reminders

One of the major problems of Bangladeshi farmers in brinjal farming is the fruit and shoot borer. Years ago, their only option was to spray the brinjal plants several times to control the pest. To manage this problem, scientists developed an insect resistant brinjal (Bt brinjal). Today, farmers in the country are reaping the benefits of the crop.

Watch the Bt brinjal experience in Bangladesh now.

(c) 2019. ISAAA.