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In This Issue

July 8, 2020

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Beyond Promises: Facts about Biotech/GM Crops in 2016
A visual presentation of the 10 important highlights about biotech crops from 1996 to 2016, taken from ISAAA Brief 52: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016.
From Fear to Facts: 17 Years of Agri-biotech Reporting in the Philippines (2000-2016)
The publication is based on a study conducted by ISAAA and SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center published in the April 2017 issue of Philippine Journal of Crop Science.
Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016
ISAAA Brief 52-2016 is now available! Get your copy now!
Executive Summary: ISAAA Brief 52-2016
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In March, the International Seed Federation (ISF) sought the support of governments around the world to facilitate the international movement of seed under the COVID-19 crisis and not to impose restrictive measures to avoid disrupting the agriculture supply chain. In a new statement, the ISF reinforces this call to assure the world that seed breeders and producers are taking every necessary precaution to prioritize food safety, especially during these challenging times.

The ISF statement emphasizes that there is no evidence that people can contract COVID-19 from food, including seed or from food packaging, citing the World Health Organization (WHO) in its guidelines for food business which says the following: "It is highly unlikely that people can contract COVID-19 from food or food packaging. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and the primary transmission route is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact with respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. There is no evidence to date of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply."

The ISF states that unjustified measures do result in the disruption of international seed trade and closing borders or even slowing down the transboundary movement of seeds could create a significant problem in the seed and food supply chain.

For more details, read the ISF statement.

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Private investors in Africa have been challenged to support the establishment of genome editing start-ups on the continent. This comes as it emerged that Africa, Asia, and Latin America have untapped entrepreneurship opportunities in genome editing.

Speaking in an ISAAA webinar titled ‘Genome Editing 101: Getting Ready for Business', Kudu Biotech Director Dr. Nicholas Grantham explained how the local private sector has an edge, both in terms of capital and expertise, over government when dealing with start-ups in new emerging biotechnologies. "Many large agricultural companies are willing to finance the initial stages of a genome editing business in exchange for exclusive access to new techniques or a share in the royalties; but this of course relies on the identification of a suitable project rather than a design thereof from scratch," Dr. Grantham remarked.

According to Dr. Ning Mao, the Manager of Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology, a favorable ecosystem is key in catalyzing promising genome editing technologies from research to commercial applications. Dr. Mao singled research capabilities, funding, incubators and accelerators of ideas, and market access as important catalysts to emergence of start-ups in developing countries. "Resulting from these initiatives, entrepreneurs can be trained and their ideas actualized into starting up a genome editing company," she said. "Vibrant investors, besides providing funding, can also provide business coaching and meaningful networks for young start-up teams," Dr. Mao added.

It emerged during the webinar that developing countries are endowed with tremendous opportunities to invest in genome editing. Among them are emerging research centers with advanced genome editing technologies, good market potential especially in the agri-tech space, growing local talent pool, and increasing online resources for entrepreneurship education. "However, lack of technology translation mechanisms, regulatory uncertainties, ineffective network to connect people with different skills, and scarce infrastructure present a challenge in emerging markets," said Dr. Mao.

Former Chair of Argentina's National Biosafety Commission, Prof. Martin Lema, revealed that Argentina has seen a drastic surge in adoption of genome editing innovations in the last four years alone. "Most of these genome editing technologies are spearheaded by local companies and public research institutions," said Prof. Lema. He noted that the direction and advances for harmonizing regulations are encouraging to entrepreneurs in this field.

The webinar was attended by more than 370 participants from around the world. Subscribe through Messenger to get updates on the upcoming ISAAA webinars.

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Genetically modified (GM) maize intended to control rootworm was analyzed and compared to its non-GM counterparts as well as commercial corn. Results showed the GM maize is substantially equivalent to its non-GM counterparts.

The GM maize DP23211 was developed with traits such as rootworm control and tolerance to glufosinate. It underwent a multi-locational field trial in 2018 and was planted in 12 different sites that were selected to represent the major maize planting areas of the United States and Canada. The grain and forage harvested from the field trials underwent evaluation of standard agronomic endpoints and compositional analytes by comparing then with the GM maize's non-GM near-isoline control as well as non-GM commercial maize.

Results showed that agronomic endpoints were statistically significant compared to the control maize, but not biologically relevant after using false discovery rate (FDR) method. Composition analytes were also statistically significant, but analyte values fell within the range of natural variation after adjusting using the FDR method. This concludes that the composition of GM maize DP23211's grain and forage is substantially equivalent to conventional maize. It also supports the results generated from over 25 years of GM crop cultivation which states that no biologically relevant changes in composition have been identified that are associated with the development of a GM plant.

Read the full results of the study in GM Crops and Food.

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Scientists from the United States and South Korea have now engineered Arabidopsis thaliana to behave like a succulent, improving water-use efficiency, salinity tolerance, and reducing the effects of drought. The work led by University of Nevada, Reno Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Professor John Cushman will be combined with another of his projects: engineering another trait called crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), a water-conserving mode of photosynthesis that can be applied to plants to improve water-use efficiency.

"Water-storing tissue is one of the most successful adaptations in plants that enables them to survive long periods of drought. This anatomical trait will become more important as global temperatures rise, increasing the magnitude and duration of drought events during the 21st century," said Professor Cushman. He added that the two adaptations work hand-in-hand, and their goal is to engineer CAM. In order to do this efficiently, they engineered a leaf anatomy that had larger cells to store malic acid that accumulates in the plant at night. These larger cells also served to store water to overcome drought and to dilute salt and other ions taken up by the plant, making them more salt tolerant.

The A. thaliana engineered by Cushman's team has increased cell size resulting in larger plants with increased leaf thickness, more water-storage capacity, and fewer and less open stomatal pores to limit water loss from the leaf due to the overexpression of a gene, known as VvCEB1. The gene is involved in the cell expansion phase of berry development in wine grapes.

According to Professor Cushman, CAM plants are very smart, keeping their stomata closed during the day, and only opening them at night when evapotranspiration is low because it is cooler and the sun is not shining. The significance of CAM is found in its unique ability to conserve water. Where most plants would take in carbon dioxide during the day, CAM plants do so at night. CAM plants are also five to six times more water-use efficient, and many desert-adapted CAM plants also have a greater ability to tolerate high temperatures.

For more details, read the news article in NevadaToday.

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The United States is the top biotech-crop growing country in the world, having commercialized biotech crops in 1996. The adoption of stacked varieties in the U.S. has accelerated in recent years. Approximately 89% of the cotton area and 80% of corn were planted with stacked seeds in 2019. This is according to the Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. published by the Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS).

Herbicide tolerant (HT) crops, which tolerate potent herbicides provide farmers with a broad variety of options for effective weed control. HT crops have been adopted in the U.S. since 1996. HT soybeans rose from 17% in 1997 to 68% in 2001, before plateauing at 94% in 2014. HT cotton area expanded from approximately 10% in 1997 to 56% in 2001, and reached a high of 95% in 2019. HT corn adoption rates increased following the turn of the century. Currently, approximately 90 percent of the domestic corn area in the U.S. is produced with HT seeds.

Insect resistant crops that contain genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and produce insecticidal proteins have been available for corn and cotton since 1996. The area planted to Bt corn increased from 8% in 1997 to 19% in 2000, before climbing to 83% in 2019. Bt cotton area also expanded, from 15% of U.S. cotton planted area in 1997 to 37% in 2001. Currently, 92% percent of U.S. cotton is planted with genetically engineered, insect-resistant seeds.

Read more details in the Recent Trends in GE Adoption from the USDA-ERS website.

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Researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) have identified two genes that are key to how plants know when to flower. The researchers were able to show that the ELF3 and GI genes control the internal clock of plants that monitors the length of daylight and determine when it is the right time to flower.

In this study, the MLU research team wanted to understand which genes control a plant's internal clock, thereby influencing the flowering process. They did this by investigating two genes that were already known to play a crucial role in the circadian clock: ELF3 and GI. The two genes have been studied separately, but the researchers wanted to understand how they work together and how they jointly influence the circadian clock, for example by regulating when a plant flowers.

The team investigated how the two genes functioned in Arabidopsis thaliana. The scientists bred plants with various genetic defects. In one group, the ELF3 gene was defective, in the second group it was the GI gene. In the third group, both genes were switched off. The researchers then observed how the plants reacted to different periods of light and found that when one of the two genes was defective, the plants' circadian clock still functioned on a rudimentary basis. When both genes were switched off, the plant does not react at all. "The plants could still perceive the light, but they could no longer tell how long the light lasted. This explains why the mutants with the double gene defect produced flowers at the same time under different lengths of light period," says Dr. Usman Anwer from the Institute for Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences at MLU.

For more details, read the article on the MLU website.

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Researchers from the James Hutton Institute were able to identify a specific protein in the potato genome that is responsible for initiating the growth of tubers. This discovery can potentially provide a new strategy to increase the productivity of potatoes, a crop considered to be pivotal for global food security.

Crop maturity is crucial in potato agronomy and is dictated by the earliness of tuberization. To explore this further, the researchers investigated the role of the TERMINAL FLOWER-1/CENTRORADIALIS gene family, termed as StCEN, in potato tuberization. They found that its reduction accelerated tuber formation, while its over-expression caused delayed tuberization and reduced tuber yield. Furthermore, a specific tuberization signal, StSP6A, was found to be the activation target of the tuberigen activation complex. StCEN suppresses tuberization by directly antagonizing StSP6A in the stolons.

The researchers concluded that StCEN can serve as a breeding marker to improve tuber initiation and yield. This can help potato breeders develop fast-maturing, more resilient potato varieties that can withstand the challenges of climate change.

Read the details of the study in The Plant Journal and the news release from the James Hutton Institute.

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