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In This Issue

May 23, 2018

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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.
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A cotton revival initiative in May 2017 noted that Kenya had poor cotton production due to lack of quality and sufficient inputs such as good seeds, among other factors. Thus, experts in the country recommend Bt technology as an answer to the country's shortage of cotton production.

According to Daniel Macondo, a cotton farmer and Chairperson of the Society of Biotech Farmers of Kenya, Bt technology and other plant breeding techniques can help them produce better seeds. Dr. Charles Waturu, Director of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation's (KALRO) Horticulture Research Institute in Thika, also stressed that Bacillus thuringiensis, the key source of insect resistance in Bt technology, has been used in biochemical insecticides for over 30 years.

The process does not change the other characteristics of the plant aside from enhancing the plant's ability to protect itself from pests. The efficacy of Bt as an insecticide is made stronger and effective when genetically engineered into the cotton plants, Dr. Waturu explained.

At present, KALRO and partners are conducting national performance trials of Bt cotton in nine areas in Kenya to facilitate its adoption in the future. "India, with its 11.6 million acres under Bt cotton, Pakistan with 2.9 million acres and Myanmar with 325,000 acres, among others, now have a more thriving textile sector, compared to Kenya's because of this technology," Dr. Waturu stressed.

Read the original article from the Daily Nation.

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Many of the plant pathogens inject effector proteins into plant cells to attack the host's immune system and it has been unclear how the complex system of attack works. Researchers from Cornell University and Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences published in Cell Reports a new experimental system for studying effector interplay to sabotage a plant's defenses.

The researchers reported that the experimental system that they developed is based on an engineered strain of Pseudomonas syringae pathogen called DC3000 and the wild tobacco Nicotiana benthamiana. The unmodified DC3000 deploys 29 effector proteins, but the engineered version lacks all these, allowing the researchers to add effectors gradually to determine their actions in inducing and suppressing the plant's immune responses. This strategy helped them understand how effectors work together to combat the plant's internal anti-effector surveillance system.

They found that six of the 29 DC3000 effector proteins trigger defense responses linked with detection by the plant's immune system. However, many of the remaining 23 effectors work in tandem with the detected effectors to suppress this plant's immune response, thus enabling pathogen success.

Read more from Cornell Chronicle.

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Asia and the Pacific

Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science reported their discovery of a hormone-like small protein that helps plants increase their tolerance to excessive salt. The report is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).

They started the study by looking for small proteins linked to salinity tolerance through microarray analysis. Each of the genes that were expressed more under high salinity conditions was overexpressed in transgenic plants and then the transgenic plants were exposed to salinity stress test. Four of the transgenic plants showed better tolerance to salinity compared to the control plants. Then they focused their investigation on AT13, which induced the greatest tolerance to saline conditions.

Further tests showed that levels of the AT13 peptide naturally increased when plants were exposed to salt stress. Thus, the team searched the most important part of the peptide by making pieces of the AtPep3 peptide synthetically. They later found that treating plants with one section of the peptide (AT13-5) was as effective as boosting tolerance through transgenic overexpression of the gene.

"Peptides are natural compounds that are safer than genetically modified plants," said Kentaro Nakaminami, lead researcher of the study. "Additionally, potential supplements made from synthetic peptide fragments will be easy to apply to different species of plants," he added.

Read more from PNAS and SeedQuest.

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Filipino lawmakers on Monday called for the continued advancement of biotechnology in the country during the opening of the Biotechnology Exhibit in the House of Representatives themed Bioteknolohiya: Pambansang Hamon, Pambansang Solusyon (Biotechnology: Our Nation's Challenge, Our Nation's Solution). The exhibit was organized by the Department of Agriculture's Biotechnology Program Office from May 21-24, 2018 at the North Wing Lobby of the House of Representatives. It is one of the many lined up activities in celebration of the National Biotechnology Week in November 2018. 

Expressing his support, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez stressed that agricultural biotechnology is an excellent option for increased productivity and improved nutrition and that the rewards that the country can get from the innovation ultimately outweigh the risks. Rep. Ferjenel Biron, Chairman of the House Committee on Trade and Industry, read the Speaker's message on his behalf. 

"Biotechnology is an innovation that cannot be put to waste. It is indeed a progressive solution that will help alleviate, if not completely solve, our issues on food security, poverty, rural progress, and even climate change," House Speaker Alvarez further said. 

Deputy House Speaker Sharon Garin also attested to the benefits of biotechnology. "The Province of Iloilo is now at the forefront of corn production. Many farmers in some of the poorest areas of the province are now telling success stories of biotechnology. They can now send their children to school and build decent homes," she shared in her speech. Rep. Garin advocated the infusion of technology in agriculture. "Agriculture cannot stand by itself for the survival of the Filipinos. If we want more income for our farmers and more production for food consumption, then we need biotechnology," she added. 

House Speaker Alvarez likewise enjoined his fellow legislators to work together and strengthen their support for the endeavor, and appealed to Filipino scientists to continue fighting the good fight for the benefit of farmers wholely on their crops for their livelihood, and the consumers, the families, and the communities who rely on the farmers for food on their table. 

Dr. Rhodora R. Aldemita, Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotechnology Applications (ISAAA) Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology, presented the Global Adoption and Benefits of Biotech/GM Crops during the opening program. A special screening of the documentary, Food Evolution, was held on May 23 as part of the activity. Eight (8) agencies participated in the exhibit including ISAAA and the Southeast  Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture - Biotechnology Information Center (SEARCA BIC). 

For more information about biotech in the Philippines, visit the SEARCA BIC website.

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For the first time in the United Kingdom, genome-edited (GE) crops will be planted in a field as part of an experimental trial at Rothamsted Research that aims to investigate genetic engineering's efficiency in developing plants to yield more nutritious diets more sustainably.

The GE lines of Camelina will be planted in the same field where Rothamsted's genetically modified (GM) varieties of Camelina plants will be sown. The GM Camelina is engineered to accumulate omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs), a form of lipid that are also known as omega-3 fish oils, in their seeds.

While GM plants require approval before they can be planted in the field, GE varieties do not necessarily. The crucial difference is between mutations that incorporate DNA from a different species, transgenes, and those that do not. The GM Camelina incorporates new (algal) genes; the GE varieties involve only changes (losses) in the plant's DNA material. The approved field trial at Rothamsted comprises 20 strains of Camelina sativa: 17 GM lines, two GE lines, and one wild-type (control) line.

"These two technologies promise much," says Johnathan Napier, who leads Rothamsted's Omega-3 Flagship Programme. "The GM plants should yield superior levels of [LC-PUFAs] EPA and DHA; the GE plants will improve our understanding of lipid metabolism."

For more details, read the Rothamsted Research News.

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Researchers from Spain have identified the crop wild relatives (CWR) that could be used as gene sources to develop new varieties that are adapted to climate change.

The study, published in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, has a list of 929 wild plants related to 203 crops of interest in the country, with the aim of identifying "the genes needed by the Spanish agriculture". The study presents a prioritized checklist of CWR in Spain in which the criteria of crossability with crops of economic importance, endemicity, and threat status have been taken into account.

The crops were classified into use categories: food (24%), forage and fodder (32%), ornamental (28%), and industrial and other uses (16%), depending on their main use.

Read more about the study in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

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A new study conducted by a team of scientists from Wageningen University & Research and Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority reveals that a potato variety genetically engineered to resist potato blight can help reduce the use of chemical fungicides by up to 90 percent. The approach uses two tools: a genetically modified (GM) potato along with a new pest management strategy.

Potato blight, caused by the water mold Phytophthora infestans, causes significant losses to potato farmers worldwide. Farmers resort to spraying their crops with fungicides on a weekly basis to control the disease.

The international team of scientists developed the IPM2.0 approach which involves growing blight-resistant potato crops and monitoring an active pathogen population and a "do not spray unless" fungicide use strategy. This strategy means farmers will not apply fungicides unless a potato variety is at risk by a pathogen. The team tested their strategy over several years in potato-growing countries Ireland and the Netherlands using three potato varieties: a susceptible variety called Désirée, resistant variety Sarpo Mira, and a resistant version of the Désirée which received a resistance gene from a wild relative through cisgenesis.

The susceptible potato variety and the two resistant ones were cultivated comparing common practice, with fungicides applied on a weekly basis, and the IPM2.0 method. The IPM2.0 strategy on the susceptible variety Désirée, resulted in an average reduction of 15% on the fungicide input. Both resistant varieties, however, remained healthy with an average 80 to 90% reduction of the fungicide input.

For more details, read the Wageningen University & Research News.

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Experts at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom have discovered that inhibiting the production of serotonin - the happiness hormone - in rice plants increases their resistance to two of the world's most destructive and costly insect pests in rice production: brown plant-hopper and striped stem borer. Using gene editing techniques on rice plants to switch off the serotonin-producing gene, the team found the plants also produced higher levels of salicylic acid.

In humans, serotonin helps regulate moods, boost appetite, regulate digestion, and helps with sleep and memory. In plants, serotonin is involved in growth and development, while it helps insects seek out resources and food.

Analyzing the plant's response to insect attack, the team found both serotonin and salicylic acid were produced in response to an infestation, but supressing serotonin production made the rice plants more pest-resistant. They also found that disabling the gene responsible for making serotonin increases levels of salicylic acid in the plant and increase its resistance.

For more information, read the news article from Newcastle University.

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Metal tolerance proteins (MTPs), which belong to the cation diffusion facilitator family (CDF), have been known to be involved in metal transport and homeostasis in different plant species. The team of Gang Ma from Nanjing Agricultural University in China recently studied the role of the rice gene OsMTP11, which encodes a CDF.

The team found that expression of OsMTP11 enhances manganese (Mn) tolerance in the Mn-sensitive yeast mutant. Meanwhile, knockdown of OsMTP11 in rice resulted in growth inhibition due to the presence of high concentrations of Mn, leading to increased accumulation of Mn in the shoots and roots.

Overexpression of OsMTP11 was found to enhance Mn tolerance in rice, even under a toxic level of Mn. Analysis revealed that the OsMTP11 protein is localized to the trans-Golgi network (TGN), and regulates Mn relocalization under high levels of Mn.

These suggest that OsMTP11 protein is required for Mn homeostasis and contributes towards Mn tolerance in rice.

For more information, read the article in Plant Science.

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Plants have long evolved a wide array of defense mechanisms activated through complex signaling pathways. OXI1 kinase is required for activation of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs). Furthermore, changes in the levels of OXI1 appear to be crucial for signaling. Callose deposition also plays a key role in defense. Newcastle University's Tahsin Shoala led a team of researchers to prove that OXI1 plays an important role in the defense against aphids (Myzus persicae).

The Arabidopsis mutant oxi1-2, which has a silenced OXI1, showed significant resistance both in terms of population build-up and the rate of build-up of aphids. Meanwhile, callose synthase GSL5 was found to be upregulated in oxi1-2 in response to aphids.

These results suggest that the aphid resistance in Arabidopsis oxi1-2 mutants is through the induction of callose deposition via MAPKs. A better understanding of the signaling pathways conferring tolerance to biotic stress will help future breeding programs for improving crops.

For more information, read the article in Transgenic Research.

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Accumulation of storage compounds during seed development plays an important role in the life cycle of oilseed plants. These compounds provide carbon and energy resources to support the growth of seedlings. The team of Yanli Guo from Huazhong Agricultural University aims to study the BnCIPK9 gene, which is strongly induced by wounding stress, in canola (Brassica napus) tissues.

The overexpression of BnCIPK9 during seed development reduced oil synthesis in transgenic B. napus, leading to lower seed oil content (OC) compared to wild-type (WT) plants. On the other hand, OC in Arabidopsis thaliana Atcipk9-knockout mutants was higher than that of WT plants. However, seedlings of Atcipk9-knockout mutants also failed to establish roots on a sugar-free medium, but could be rescued by supplementation of sucrose or glucose. Moreover, the phenotype of the supplemented transgenic lines was similar to that of WT plants when grown on sugar-free medium.

These results show that BnCIPK9 and AtCIPK9 are involved in sugar-related response and play important roles in the regulation of energy reserves. AtCIPK9 negatively regulates lipid accumulation and affects early seedling establishment in Arabidopsis. This study on CIPK9 provides insights into its regulation of OC, and might be used for improving OC in canola.

For more information, read the article in Biotechnology for Biofuels.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Synthetic nanoparticles used in fighting cancer were successfully used in healing malnourished plants. The results were published in Scientific Reports.

The nanoparticles called liposomes are spherical pouches used to deliver drugs to a particular part of the human body. These tiny delivery packages were filled by the scientists from Israel Institute of Technology with fertilizing nutrients then applied in plants. This technique showed to be more effective than spraying the nutrients onto the sickly plants.

The researchers initially exposed sickly tomato plants to either liposomes packed with a rare earth metal call europium, or free-floating europium molecules. Since europium is not naturally occurring in plants or soil, it's easy to trace how much of this elements plants soaked up after treatment. After three days of exposure, plants treated with liposomes had absorbed up to 33 percent of the nanopaticles, while those exposed to free-floating europium only absorbed less than 0.1 percent of the molecules. Then they treated the iron- and magnesium-deficient tomato plants with iron and/or magnesium spray, while the other plants with a solution containing liposomes packed with iron and magnesium. Two weeks after, the plants sprayed with free-floating nutrients were still yellowish and curled, while those that were sprayed with liposomes showed healthy and green leaves.

Read more from Science News and Scientific Reports.

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Genetic engineering of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) for reduced cell wall recalcitrance and improved biofuel production has long been a goal. Promoters have been used to control the expression of cell wall synthesis genes toward the goal. However, these often lead to undesirable plant phenotypic effects. Green tissue-specific promoters from switchgrass are potentially valuable to alter cell wall traits while not changing phenotypes.

The team of Wusheng Liu, Mitra Mazarei, and Rongjian Ye from the University of Tennessee in the USA studied three switchgrass green tissue-specific promoters in rice. They then used them to direct the expression of the switchgrass PvMYB4 transcription factor gene in transgenic switchgrass to confer reduced recalcitrance in aboveground biomass.

Analysis detected the strong expression of the PvMYB4 in the aboveground tissues, including leaf blades, leaf sheaths, internodes, inflorescences, and nodes of switchgrass. The green tissue-specific expression of PvMYB4 in transgenic switchgrass led to significant gains in saccharification efficiency and decreased levels of lignin. Furthermore, plant growth was not compromised in green tissue-expressed PvMYB4 switchgrass plants.

This study suggests that green tissue-specific expression of PvMYB4 is an effective strategy for the improvement of transgenic feedstocks.

For more information, read the article in Biotechnology for Biofuels.

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What: International Conference on Biotechnology & Industrial Revolution

When: November 12-14, 2018

Where: Dubai, UAE

For more details, visit the conference website.

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