News in October 2011
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Books & Articles

Crop Adaptation to Climate Change
John Wiley & Sons

Responding to appeals from African leaders for new tools to deal with the effects of climate change on food production, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has released a series of studies focused on "climate proofing" crops critical to food security in the developing world. The studies constitute various chapters in the book. It was developed by an international team of the world's leading climate and agricultural researchers to provide adaptation strategies for more than a dozen crops-such as potatoes, beans, bananas and cassava-on which billions of people depend worldwide. Book available at,descCd-tableOfContents.html for €192.-

Mutation Breeding of Oil Seed Crops
IAEA TECDOC Series No. 781; March 1994, IAEA Publication, Austria
Plant Mutation Reports

The Journal of Plant Mutation Reports (PMRs) is a joint FAO/IAEA Publication. Plant Mutation Reports publishes (mini) reviews, short communications and complete research papers in all areas of plant mutation research which focuses on mutagenesis, mutation induction, mutant characterization, and mutant applications. It also publishes description papers on mutant germplasm and mutant varieties. Papers on social-economic impact analysis of induced mutations and mutant varieties are also accepted. Plant Mutation Reports can be accessed below:


41 Swedish Plant Scientists Speak Out Against Harmful EU Regulation Of Modern Plant Genetics
- David Tribe, BioFortified, Oct. 6, 2011

Quasi-science prevents an environmentally friendly agriculture and forestry

European legislation in the field of genetic engineering is so narrow that it blocks the ability of researchers to take progress from publicly funded basic research on plants through to practical applications. We, 41 scientists who have received funding for basic research on plants from the Swedish Research Council, urge politicians and environmental groups to take the necessary steps to change the relevant legislation so that all available knowledge can be used to develop sustainable agricultural and forest industries. The prerequisite for progress has been basic research, especially studies of plant genes.

The application of this basic knowledge with the goal of making agriculture and forestry sustainable and environmentally friendly has been hindered by European gene technology legislation. These regulations impose very strict controls on the use of plant varieties developed by genetic engineering, while varieties developed via traditional breeding are released with no checks whatsoever. Some environmental groups leading opinion against GM plants criticise the use of genetic engineering by arguing that developments are linked to large multinational companies, that there is uncertainty about the risks, that they cannot be used in an agri-environment without increasing the use of chemicals and that only multinational companies benefit from GM plants. Let us examine these arguments.

Firstly: The use of GM plants is both standard practice and necessary for basic research on processes such as photosynthesis, plant growth and biomass allocation, the function and role of plant hormones, the regulation of daily and annual growth rhythms, disease resistance and speciation etc.,

Second: There is no scientific uncertainty on the issue of whether GM crops pose more risk to consumers or the environment than conventionally produced crops varieties. The legislation was formulated when there was not yet sufficient data on this but now we know better. 500 independent research groups have received 300 million € from the EU to study the risks. The conclusion in a summary of the results ("A decade of EU-funded GM research") is that "GMOs are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies".We are basic research scientists and we know that the changes produced by genetic engineering are easier to control than those produced in other ways. The legislation argues the opposite, and imposes controls only on GM plants. To put this in other terms; the logic of the current legislation would suggest that only drugs produced by genetic engineering should be evaluated for side effects.

The process from basic research - through applied research - to the finished seed marketed by a company is not only time consuming but also very expensive for GM crops: it costs an estimated minimum of 100 million SEK. Publicly funded researchers or small businesses will never have such resources and thus cannot translate advances made in basic research into a product for consumers. Only a few multinational companies are able to take these costs and therefore give the impression of a monopoly. The regulatory framework is contributing to the lack of competition and the appearance of monopolies; it is not simply patent rights or unsound business practices, as is often claimed.

Ultra-right religious groups in the U.S. are trying to raise a quasi-scientific version of creationism as an alternative to evolution. In Europe we look at this public debate with amazement, as if it went against the notion that the Earth is round. However, in Europe we have instead much quasi-scientific scaremongering about the risks of GMOs, and this is fuelled by some groups within the environmental movement.

Changing the genetic engineering legislation is not only a very important issue for Europe. Poorly funded plant breeding researchers and organisations in many third world countries are also being deprived of one of their best tools to provide better local crops because of the obvious risk of being excluded from the GM-hostile European market.

We therefore urge our politicians to change this outdated law. It should be the characteristics of a plant that determines whether it should be checked, not the technology used to produce it. We do not believe that all checks on the cultivation of GM plants should be removed. Varieties that are toxic or could cause allergies or environmental problems must be subjected to governmental control and independent evaluation - but these same controls should apply to ALL varieties, whether they are produced by genetic engineering or not.

From Norway

"We depend completely on the success of these few crops. But I am convinced that the fitness of current plant varieties will not last forever. All it will take to trigger a famine is one year of badly reduced yields for just one of the three main crops," warns Atle Bones, Professor of Biology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim.

Although a quarter million plant types exist, global food production today is based on only about 100 of them. Wheat, corn and rice account for over 60% of all production. According to Professor Bones, there are thousands of plants that could be cultivated for food once they are bred to remove toxic compounds or undesirable traits.

"As of today, not a single report of GMOs having damaged health or the environment has been verified." He stresses, however, that it is extremely difficult to prove specific effects of food, since a diet consists of many foods that have a combined effect. "I don't believe that gene technology or GMOs alone will save the world, but they will be part of the solution in certain areas," concludes the crop researcher. "Some changes, such as climatic ones, are going to happen rapidly, so we don't have time to wait the many years it would take with conventional selection to introduce the desired traits into our crop varieties."

(The article is published in Norwegian in the Biotek og mat (Biotechnology and food) publication from the Research Council of Norway's Functional Genomics programme (FUGE).)


Embrace GMOs: Zimbabwe PM Tsvangirai
Fungai Kwaramba, The Zimbabwean, Oct 19, 2011

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has called for Zimbabwe to carefully embrace Genetically Modified Organisms as a panacea to the country's continued food shortages.

Speaking in Johannesburg at the Agribusiness Conference on Monday, Tsvangirai touched on the subject that has the potential of further dividing opinion in the polarized coalition government.

President Robert Mugabe has, over the years, dismissed any calls for the importation of GMOs, but Tsvangirai suggested at the conference that Zimbabwe and Africa at large could embrace them. "In the absence of any contrary scientific research, the State should carefully embrace GMO technology in agriculture," he said.


Listeria in melon cantaloupe

Multistate Outbreak of Listeriosis Linked to Whole Cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, Colorado.
13 Dead, 18 States, More To Come.

On September 26, 2011, a total of 72 persons infected with the four outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes have been reported to CDC from 18 states. All illnesses started on or after July 31, 2011. The number of infected persons identified in each state is as follows: California (1), Colorado (15), Florida (1), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Kansas (5), Maryland (1), Missouri (1), Montana (1), Nebraska (6), New Mexico (10), North Dakota (1), Oklahoma (8), Texas (14), Virginia (1), West Virginia (1), Wisconsin (2), and Wyoming (1). Thirteen deaths have been reported: 2 in Colorado, 1 in Kansas, 1 in Maryland, 1 in Missouri, 1 in Nebraska, 4 in New Mexico, 1 in Oklahoma, and 2 in Texas.

Collaborative investigations by local, state, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicate the source of the outbreak is whole cantaloupe grown at Jensen Farms’ production fields in Granada, Colorado.

Laboratory testing by FDA has identified L. monocytogenes matching outbreak strains in samples from equipment and cantaloupe at the Jensen Farms’ packing facility in Granada, Colorado.

Decadal Plan for Plant Science Begins to Take Shape
Science Insider, by Elizabeth Pennisi on 26 September 2011, 11:48 AM

U.S. plant scientists have taken the first steps toward a 10-year plan to help improve global food supplies using sustainable practices and to make progress in understanding how plants work.

Closed meeting in Bethesda, Maryland was organized by the American Society of Plant Biologists. The meeting attracted 75 plant scientists from institutions around the country, as well as additional representatives from government, industry, and other professional societies.

Organizers hope to circulate a draft report of the meeting for outside comments, with the ultimate goal of issuing a final report by March 2012 with the field's priorities.

GM brings benefits to women cotton farmers in Colombia
- Lisbeth Fog,, 28 September

[BOGOTÁ] A study of cotton farmers in Colombia has found that the reasons for adopting genetically modified (GM) crops differ for men and women, as do levels of access to information on GM farming, and understanding these differences may benefit women and their families. (Colombia has been growing GM cotton commercially since 2003, when it had just over 6,000 hectares planted. This rose to more than 37,000 hectares in 2010, all for use within the country.)

Women farmers said adopting GM cotton saved them time and money - on weeding and on hiring male labour to spray insecticides, respectively. They also said that GM varieties were easier to manage, freeing up their time for other activities, according to the study, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute this month.

The GM technology empowers women and gives them more say in household decisions, said Jorge Maldonado, one of the study authors, and an associate professor of economics at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá.

Jonathan Gressel, a plant sciences professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, said that GM cotton should also be available to women in Africa, China and India, where some may spend up to 60 per cent of their waking hours weeding.

"The best way to empower developing world women is to get them out of weeding and into mainstream life - including schooling and commerce. The added value of [GM] is that it provides the women farmers even less dependence upon others," he said.

Transgenic bean developed by Embrapa is approved in Brazil
- Crop Biotech Update, Sept 19, 2011;

This is the first transgenic plant that is totally produced by public institutions
September 15, 2011 - The National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio) approved today the genetically modified (GM) bean resistant to the golden mosaic virus, the worst enemy of this crop in Brazil and in South America.

Developed by Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária - Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural and Livestock Research Company), this bean event is the first transgenic plant that is entirely produced by public research institutions. Nearly 10 years were needed for the research in a partnership between Embrapa Recursos Genéticos e Biotecnologia - Cenargen (Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology) and Embrapa Arroz e Feijăo (Embrapa Rice and Beans).

"In the field trials performed, even with the massive presence of the whitefly, the insect that transmits the mosaic virus, the transgenic plant was not affected by the disease", says Francisco Aragăo, Cenargen researcher and one of the people in charge of the project.

Social, environmental and economic importance.

Beans are a type of crop that is extremely important especially in Latin American and African societies, and it is the most important legume in the eating habits of over 500 million people. In Brazil, it is the main vegetable source of protein and iron, and when associated to rice, it results in an even more nutritional mix.

The world production of beans corresponds to over 12 million tons. Brazil is the second country in this rank and the plant is produced especially by small farmers, with nearly 80% of the production and cultivated area in properties smaller than 100 hectares. When the golden mosaic virus attacks the plantation at its initial phase, it can cause damage to 100% of the production. Embrapa Arroz e Feijăo estimates that the loss caused by the disease would be enough to feed up to 5-10 million people. The transgenic bean presents economic and environmental advantages, such as reduced waste, guaranteed harvest and reduced agrochemicals applications. With the approval, the transgenic seeds will be multiplied and must reach the market in two or three years.

The authors used four genetic transformation new strategies. In general terms, they genetically modified the plant so that it could produce small fragments of RNA, responsible for the activation of its defence mechanism against the golden mosaic virus.

"We have mimicked the natural system", says Franscisco Aragăo, explaining that the great advantage of such technology is that there is no production of new protein in the plants, and consequently, there are no allergenicity and toxicity risks. Furthermore, the RNA fragments can cause resistance to several variations of the same virus.

News in Science

Scientists find genetic trick to make iron-rich rice
Imelda V. Abano,, 26 September 2011
Citation: Johnson AAT, Kyriacou B, Callahan DL, Carruthers L, Stangoulis J, et al. (2011) Constitutive Overexpression of the OsNAS Gene Family Reveals Single-Gene Strategies for Effective Iron- and Zinc-Biofortification of Rice Endosperm. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024476

Scientists say they have made a breakthrough in their quest to develop a rice variety to address iron and zinc deficiencies that affect millions of people in poor countries across Asia. The genetically modified (GM) rice has up to four times more iron than conventional rice and twice as much zinc, Alex Johnson, from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) told SciDev.Net. "The rice has some of the highest iron concentrations that have been described for white rice (up to 19 parts per million). We have also demonstrated that the iron is in the endosperm tissue that makes up white rice," Johnson said. This is important because of the widespread consumption of white rice.

Genomes published
Zachary Russ, Genetic Eng and Biotech News, Oct 20, 2010

Two months ago, the draft sequence of the castor bean, Ricinus communis, was published. It is one of 21 publicly available plant genomes-a list that includes grapes, corn, apple, sorghum, cucumber, cassava, rice, cacao, peach, papaya, and soybean. The other nine are: five model organisms-two varieties of Arabidopsis, a grass (Brachypodium), monkey flower, and one legume (Medicago)-as well as moss, spikemoss, poplar, and green algae.

One of the most significant limitations is genome size. In this regard, plant genomes vary widely: from about 450 Mb for rice to 2,500 Mb for maize and a stunning 16,000 Mb for wheat. For reference, the human genome is about 3,000 Mb.

It's useful to note that whole-genome sequencing is not, by any means, an exhaustive mapping of the organism-it is just one part of a portfolio that includes the epigenome, proteome, metabolome, and a laundry-list of other omes that are necessary to fully describe the plant's functioning.

The product of a growing knowledge base and new engineering applications may very well be the next Green Revolution but only if social and regulatory factors permit. For all the advances in gene delivery and plant modification, these remarkable advances are being impeded by societal apprehension and regulatory hurdles. Indeed, in a recent article, researchers at Oregon State argued that onerous paperwork, excessive containment requirements, and legal liability were effectively strangling biofuel and agricultural GMO R&D.

It's a shame that these technologies have become the latest example of "the public giveth and the public taketh away." At a cost of millions of dollars per genome ($30 million for the main corn genome project, another $2-5 million for the mini-chromosome and structure), better understanding of the risks and rewards of GMO technology is essential for the public to get a full return on its investment.

Successful Insertion of Transgene into a Specific Desired Location in Cotton
Bayer CropScience and Precision BioSciences, Press Release, Oct 04, 2011
MONHEIM, Germany, & Research Triangle Park, N.C., (BUSINESS WIRE)

Bayer CropScience AG and Precision BioSciences Inc. announced today that both companies have successfully inserted a gene into a specific desired location in cotton using Precision's Directed Nuclease Editor(TM) (DNE) technology. This significant technical achievement will mean that Bayer can deliver more precise, innovative solutions sooner to farmers and has triggered a milestone payment to Precision. Further details were not disclosed.

Drought tolerant corn
(University of Nabraska-Lincoln)

Some of the environmental and genetic factors affecting drought tolerance include the timing and duration of water stress, soil type, heat, and humidity. All of these influence plant processes, such as closing of the stomata (openings in the plant leaf surface). The stomata allow carbon dioxide in to make sugars for plant growth and release water, increasing transpiration and protein production.

Genes related to drought stress can affect these and other plant processes differently. For example, one hybrid contains a trait which increases root depth and another which increases silking vigor. In the Corn Belt deeper roots mean the plant will find more available moisture deep in the soil profile. Improving silk vigor is important because prolific silk growth increases the likelihood of good pollination. Silks are 98% water by weight, which explains why drought can be so detrimental to silk development. More traits related to drought tolerance will offer multiple modes of action, such as these, in response to drought stress conditions.

The varieties were developed by traditional breeding and marker-assisted technique to locate genes of interest. Several genes can be transferred by this approach. RNA chaperones are proteins that help produce and protect other proteins during times of stress. Although the specific mechanisms aren’t yet fully understood, in general, RNA chaperones help make sure that RNA molecules and critical plant proteins maintain their proper shape. Therefore, even under drought stress, critical proteins produced by the plant fold into their proper shape. If the shape of a protein is damaged, it cannot properly perform its function. During the reproductive growth stages, damaged proteins can lead to yield loss. RNA chaperones help stabilize yield even during drought conditions.

Does Bt protein persist or break down during the agricultural cycle?
- Dr Martin Müller, GMO SAFETY, Oct 17, 2011

Helga Gruber, a PhD student at the LfL and TUM has investigated the extent to which this occurs and whether Bt protein can accumulate in the soil as a result of long-term cultivation (Transgenic Res. DOI 10.1007/s11248-011-9509-7. She was able to use trial fields on which, during her project, MON810 Bt maize was being grown for the eighth and ninth year in succession. These sites were therefore extremely suitable for investigating the potential accumulation of Bt protein. As a control, the isogenic (not genetically modified) parent variety was also grown on the trial fields.

The plants were harvested in the autumn. Remains of stems and roots and maize stubble were left on the field and turned under again. Soil samples were taken after harvesting and before the new crop was sown. The protein was extracted and the Bt protein analysed with a highly sensitive, specific protein detection method (ELISA). “Our results show that Bt protein that enters the soil through harvest residues breaks down quickly. We did not find any accumulation of the protein on the long-term trial fields. In the spring before the next crop of maize was sown, we were no longer able to detect any Bt protein on any of the plots,” says Helga Gruber.

Dr Patrick Gürtler (Livestock Science 131 (2010) 250–259 ) therefore investigated the potential effects of feeding dairy cows with Bt maize over the long term. Eighteen cows were fed GM maize for 25 months, while another group of 18 cows was fed non-GM maize. The milk yield of the two groups was compared over this period and various metabolic parameters were analysed, as well as the health of the animals. “The use of Bt maize had no impact on feeding behaviour, milk yield or animal health, or on the performance and metabolic parameters,” says Dr Gürtler, summarizing the results.

As well as these parameters, samples of blood, dung, urine and milk were taken and examined for genetically modified DNA and Bt protein. However, no elements of these were found in either the blood or the urine. Neither was any Cry1Ab DNA detected in the dung, but the animals excrete the Bt protein in their dung, so the protein does enter the slurry. “In terms of the milk, we can summarize our results by saying that no Bt protein or genetically modified DNA was detected in the milk. This means that we were unable to detect any transfer of these Bt maize components from the animal feed to the milk”.

During the long-term feeding study with MON810 Bt maize, a field trial was conducted using the liquid manure from the cows fed on Bt maize and from the control group. The liquid manure from the different groups was collected at different times, stored in tanks and spread on grassland and trial maize fields at predefined times that are usual in farming practice. The feed, the liquid manure from the cows, the soil of the fertilized plots and the plants were then analysed for both Cry1Ab DNA and for Bt protein.

Helga Gruber and her team were not able to detect any Cry1Ab DNA in the slurry, but did find very small amounts of the Bt protein. “This was because of Bt maize plant material that had not been fully digested,” Helga Gruber explains. Neither was this Bt protein completely broken down while the slurry was in storage. However, the scientist was able to show that more than 95 per cent of the Bt protein is destroyed when the maize plants are processed to make animal feed, which means that the feed contains much less of the insecticide protein than the maize plants on the field.

Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada
Aziz Aris and SamuelLeblanc, Reproductive Toxicology, in press.

Pesticides associated to genetically modified foods (PAGMF), are engineered to tolerate herbicides such as glyphosate (GLYP) and gluphosinate (GLUF) or insecticides such as the bacterial toxin bacillus thuringien- sis (Bt). The aim of this study was to evaluate the correlation between maternal and fetal exposure, and to determine exposure levels of GLYP and its metabolite aminomethyl phosphoric acid (AMPA), GLUF and its metabolite 3-methylphosphinicopropionic acid (3-MPPA) and Cry1Ab protein (a Bt toxin) in East- ern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Blood of thirty pregnant women (PW) and thirty-nine nonpregnant women (NPW) were studied. Serum GLYP and GLUF were detected in NPW and not detected in PW. Serum 3-MPPA and CryAb1 toxin were detected in PW, their fetuses and NPW. This is the first study to reveal the presence of circulating PAGMF in women with and without pregnancy, paving the way for a new field in reproductive toxicology including nutrition and utero-placental toxicities.

Soil content of insect-killing genes and pesticides
Jacob P. Koshy, Live Mint (India), Sept 28, 2011.

The field trial by scientists in Nagpur shows that the soil the plants are grown in matters almost as much as insect-killing genes and pesticide sprays.

The finding could significantly increase the amount of money farmers spend in buying and spraying pesticides. It could also mean lower yields than those promised by manufacturers of GM seeds.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Current Science, says that the quantity of toxin exuded within a Bt cotton plant sowed in deep soil was nearly three times as much as that of shallow soil and there was marked reduction in the amount of toxin (which combats pests) that was present in the plant during the months of October and November, when most of the cotton is matured and most vulnerable to pest attacks.

On the ground: A Bt cotton field. The study says that the quantity of toxin exuded within a Bt cotton plant sowed in deep soil was nearly three times as much as that of shallow soil.

The study also found that the extent of soil moisture, which can vary between extremes in a season, was a crucial factor in regulating the amount of toxin that was measured within the plant. "...This decline coincided with the peak boll formation stage. At this stage, the toxin concentration was 0.48-2.40 μg/g. The toxin concentrations were, in general, less than the critical concentration of 1.90 μg/g..." wrote the authors D. Blaise and K.R. Kranthi of the Indian Institute of Soil Science, Bhopal, and Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, respectively. The tests were performed over the monsoon of 2006 and 2007 over 21 test plots in the Nagpur institute's cotton fields.

At least 60% of India's agricultural land is rain-fed, the extent of moisture in the plant swings between extremes, and according to the study, exposes cotton to pest attacks at a level much greater than previously imagined.

"There is no doubt that we need Bt cotton. But in regions like Vidarbha which is rain-fed and has a lot of shallow soil, Bt cotton wouldn't work as well as in other parts of the country. The study just points out that you need different kinds of cotton in different regions. A one-size-fits-all approach can't work," said Kranthi.
Though Bt cotton seeds are costlier than their non-Bt counterparts, its proponents claim that seeds engineered in this way dramatically reduce the sprays-and, hence, costs-in protecting cotton crop. It is estimated that pests cause losses worth $120 billion (Rs. 5.9 trillion today), of which losses worth Rs. 60,000 crore take place in India.

Pesticides worth $8 billion are used every year in India, with cotton accounting for nearly $3.8 billion of this. GM technology is expected to reduce at least 50% of the expenditure on pesticides.

Last year, Kranthi had pointed out several "unforeseen" consequences of the widespread adoption of Bt cotton. In a report, he said 90% of the current GM cotton hybrids appear susceptible to mealy bugs and whiteflies (also considered a minor cotton pest) and that insecticide use in cotton, as measured by value, appears to have increased from Rs. 640 crore in 2006 to Rs. 800 crore in 2008.

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