News in November 2011
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Books & Articles

Seven billion humans: technology has saved us before, and can do so again
Prof Anthony Trewavas (Plant physiologist and molecular biologist at the University of Edinburgh); Telegraph (UK), 31 Oct 2011

The necessity for providing food for the seven billion and for the nine billion expected by 2050, avoiding famine and mass starvation and the wars which inevitably would follow are only too obvious. Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg and more recently Matt Ridley have all documented the numerous ways in which human life has continued to improve; the cost on us, and the planet, diminish, and the benefits increase. Science and technology have underpinned this progress and will continue to do so well beyond 2050.

But if there is a message for today, Luddite objections to technological progress can really threaten mankind's survival particularly when there is no valid reason for objection to the science involved. The importance of evidence-based knowledge as the foundation of all policy, where it is applicable, cannot be over-emphasised.

We have to double agricultural yield on the same area of ground; agricultural efficiency has to rise steeply just using the 12 per cent of the lands surface as at present. A variety, a portfolio, of approaches is envisaged. The buzzword this time is sustainable intensification. This umbrella term envisages the following. First, a requirement to prune waste, both in the agricultural and human food chains respectively. Crops lost to pests and diseases have to be further diminished. Second, there has to be better use of existing knowledge in all parts of the world. Many tropical crops lack any simple genetics for example. Third, dietary attitudes need to be influenced to reduce meat consumption. Most fish will have to be farmed sustainably. Fourth, yield gaps must be closed on under-performing land. The average wheat yields in Africa, for example, still hover around one quarter of that obtainable in Europe. New traits must be inserted into these crops and this will require biotechnology.

All these approaches will require investment in research and sadly the provision of money for agricultural research has declined in recent decades. This will have to be reversed. The research portfolio will include biotechnology and genetic manipulation (GM) as central to success. GM technology can do things that conventional breeding cannot do. Current GM crops increase yields and decrease losses from pests and diseases. There is a pressing need to develop GM crops that can be substantially resistant to drought and salinity and both will appear soon. About 15 per cent of the Earth's arable land is under GM crops in some 29 countries, and half is to be found in low-income countries.

The debate over GM as far as scientists are concerned is over. It is time to move on.

Crop diversity myths persist in media

The conventional wisdom (as illustrated in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic) that says the 20th century was a disaster for crop diversity is nothing more than a myth, according to a forthcoming study by a University of Illinois expert in intellectual property law.

Law professor Paul Heald (Heald's study will be published in the University of Illinois Law Review) says overall varietal diversity of the $20 billion market for vegetable crops and apples in the U.S. actually has increased over the past 100 years, a finding that should change the highly politicized debate over intellectual property policy.

To support their conclusions, Heald and co-author Susannah Chapman, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Georgia, studied thousands of commercially available varieties of 42 vegetable crops from 1903 to 2004, as well as varieties of apples from 1900 to 2000.

But when the researchers went to Washington to study varieties available in historical commercial seed and nursery catalogs, they were surprised by what they found as they worked through the years 1900 to 1930.

"There was no evident sign of decline, so we decided to step back and take a snapshot of 1903 and 2004, two years where others had collected full data on all important vegetable crops," Heald said. "We came to this with the exact same preconceptions as everyone else, but we couldn't ignore facts that were smacking us in the face." According to the study, 40 percent of the diversity gains the researchers found were from imports, but only 3 percent of gains could be traced to patents and less than 1 percent from biotechnological innovation.


Innovation Convention 2011
5-6 December, Brussels Meeting Centre

This first edition of the Innovation Convention will be opened by President Barroso one year after the adoption of the Innovation Union flagship initiative, the EU's roadmap to turn Europe into a more innovation-friendly and competitive continent

Advancing in Biodetection & Biosensors
28-29 March 2012, Edinburgh,

The conference will be co-located with Advances in Microarray Technology, Lab-on-a-Chip and Single Cell Analysis Europe. Registered delegates will have access to all four meetings ensuring a very cost-effective trip.

Genomics Research 2012 conference and exhibition
Select Biosciences is pleased to announce the Genomics Research 2012 conference and exhibition. This year's event will be held in Boston, MA, USA 19-20 April 2012. The five conference tracks at this event include Genomic Biomarkers, Advances in qPCR, Epigenetics, Next Gen Sequencing and RNAi & miRNA. Registered delegates will have access to all five meetings e nsuring a very cost-effective trip.

Please follow the link below for more information about this conference track:

RNAi Asia
22 - 23 November 2011, Singapore

This year's event will be kindly hosted by the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), a biomedical research institute of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore

BIT's 1st Symposium of Antimicrobial Research
01 - 03 December 2011, Beijing, China

SAR-2011 will provide a unique opportunity for you to associate with the most influential antimicrobial research scientists from all over the world.

EBI Affiliated Course
ESGI Data Flow Workshop 2012. 7-8 February 2012.

Venue: EMBL-EBI, Hinxton, Cambridge, CB10 1SD, UK;
Organiser: Guy Cochrane and Sheila Plaister;
Admin Support: Alison Barker.
Registration Deadline: 6th January 2012 @ 12:00 (midday) GMT

This workshop will provide training covering submission and retrieval services provided by the EBI's European Nucleotide Archive for raw and early analysis data from next generation nucleotide sequencing platforms. In addition, we will cover emerging technology for the efficient compression of these data. Do you want to learn more about the EBI's Sequence Read Archive (SRA) service? Then this workshop is for you! It will also cover an introduction to the ENA (European Nucleotide Archive), a section on data compression, and hands-on experience with SRA.

Hands-on Training at EBI, Next Generation Sequencing Workshop
Date: 12th - 14th March 2012
Venue: EMBL-EBI, Hinxton, Nr Cambridge, CB10 1SD, UK
Organisers: Guy Cochrane, and Giulietta Spudich
Admin Support: Alison Barker

The Next Generation Sequencing Workshop will include units covering the EBI's Sequence Read Archive (SRA) service. This is combined with an introduction to the ENA (European Nucleotide Archive), a section on data compression, and hands-on experience with SRA. Students can expect to become familiar with submission and retrieval formats for both metadata and data, submission pipelines and data retrieval using browser and web services methods.

Confocal Microscopy
EMBL Introductory Course
EMBL Heidelberg, Germany.
Tuesday 13 March - Thursday 15 March 2012.

Participants on this three-day course will be provided with an overview about the basics of confocal microscopy, multicolor, 3D- and time lapse imaging as well as spectral imaging, photobleaching (FRAP, FLIP, FLAP) and photoactivation techniques.

Single-Cell Gene Expression Analysis
EMBO Practical Course
EMBL Heidelberg, Germany.
Monday 19 March - Friday 23 March 2012

Take part in a course specifcally designed for scientists who are entering the field of single cell analysis, and want to become familiar with the different preparation methods as well as the following gene expression profiling.

Small Non-Coding RNAs
EMBO Practical Course
EMBL Heidelberg, Germany.
Saturday 21 April - Friday 27 April 2012

Analysis of Small Non-Coding RNAs: From Massively Parallel Sequencing to In-Situ Hybridization, from Discovery to Validation

Methods enabling analyses of non-coding RNAs will be the focus of this course, including massively parallel sequencing, microarrays and qPCR - from their discovery by MPS to profiling and localization of their expression. Emphasis will be placed on methods allowing investigation of these molecules in all organisms.

Plant Bioinformatics
EMBO Practical Course
Going -OMICs, co-funded by the ESF-ENSS research networking programme (RNP)
Date: 11-19 June 2012
Venue: EMBL-EBI, Hinxton, Nr Cambridge, CB10 1SD, UK
Organisers: Vicky Schneider, Paul Kersey and John Walshaw
Admin Support: Holly Foster
Application closes: 11 April 2012 (12:00 midday GMT)
Applicant notification date: 20 April 2012

This practical course aims to provide a comprehensive view of the main facets involved in Plant Bioinformatic, in particular under the large-scale dataset production and challenges in high throughput data handling and analysis. It will specifically address the challenges, uses and needs of bioinformatics resources and tool for plant researchers.

Europe - EU

GMO rules evaluation
Oct. 31 2011

On 28 October, John Dalli, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, presented the findings of two independent evaluation reports that were commissioned by the European Commission a while ago. One evaluates the authorisation procedure for GMO cultivation; the other deals with the approval and labelling of GM food and feed. Both reports were completed at the beginning of 2011 and the Commission carried out an “internal policy analysis” on their findings.

The experts surveyed numerous representatives of biotech companies, farming associations, trade associations, research institutions and environmental associations. The surveys revealed dissatisfaction on all sides with the current situation for the authorisation of GMOs for cultivation. There has been a deadlock at this level for years: the Commission regularly proposes the authorisation of GMOs for cultivation based on scientific risk assessments carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but the Council of Ministers then fails to come to a qualified majority decision for or against the proposal.

The reports come to the conclusion that GMO legislation in the EU does not require dramatic changes, but called for some improvements. Current difficulties in implementing the legislation are, they write, caused by the fact that member state representatives often cite doubts about the scientific risk assessment, but are in fact following political objectives. In order to defuse this situation, the experts propose giving member states a greater say in decisions concerning GMO cultivation. In addition, the approval process for the import of GM food and feed needs to be speeded up because more and more GM crops are being grown around the world, and uniform rules need to be drawn up for environmental monitoring of GM crops.

Horizon 2020

On 30 November, the European Commissioner for Research Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, will present the Commission's proposal for the new research and innovation programme "Horizon 2020". It will be the largest research and innovation funding programme in the world with a budget of €80 billion for 2014-2020, and will be open to non-EU countries where this is of mutual benefit. "Horizon 2020" addresses major concerns shared by all Europeans such as climate change, making renewable energy more affordable, ensuring safe food or coping with the challenges of an aging population.

Innovation Union
5-6 December, Brussels Meeting Centre

The Innovation Union is one of the seven flagship initiatives of the Europe 2020 strategy for a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. The Innovation Union plan contains over thirty actions points, with the aim to do three things:

bulletmake Europe into a world-class science performer;
bulletremove obstacles to innovation – like expensive patenting, market fragmentation, slow standard-setting and skills shortages – which currently prevent ideas getting quickly to market; and
bulletrevolutionize the way public and private sectors work together, notably through Innovation Partnerships between the European institutions, national and regional authorities and business.


BASF potato
American Council on Science and Health,
November 1, 2011

BASF has submitted its Fortuna potato for E.U. approval of its commercial cultivation and human consumption. This potato has been modified to resist late blight, an extremely damaging potato disease that's responsible for the loss of about 20 percent of the world's potato crop every year. The same fungal infestation was responsible for the calamitous Irish potato famine of the 1840s that led to a mass exodus from Ireland. The Fortuna potato could make great strides toward preventing damage to current world potato crops and helping to feed the world's ballooning population.

The approval process for GM products in Europe, however, is notoriously slow. ACSH supports BASF's efforts to bring this important modified potato to the market. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross notes, "The E.U. is particularly opposed to GM foods, calling it "Frankenfood" out of fear and superstition whipped up by activist groups, especially Greenpeace. All of this is spurred by an ignorance of the actual risks and important benefits of genetic modifications, as well as the misguided advocacy of special-interest groups against anything that has been genetically modified. Over the 16 years of biotech agriculture, comprising millions of tons and acres, not one instance of adverse effects has been detected - not in humans, animals, or the environment."

GMO safety research in Germany

Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has been funding this field of research through its own programme since 1987. The aim is to lay the foundations on which society and politicians can assess the opportunities and risks associated with genetic engineering in a scientific and impartial manner. It also gives government authorities and politicians a basis on which to decide which uses of genetically modified (GM) plants should be permitted. The biosafety research projects focus particularly on scientifically plausible objections and fears that emerge in the public debate about plant genetic engineering. To date, the BMBF has invested over 100 million euros in more than 300 projects relating to biological safety research.

Most of the research projects funded by the BMBF examine how genetically modified crop plants (particularly potatoes, maize, cereals, oilseed rape and selected woody plants) impact the biological diversity of the agroecosystem and adjacent open spaces. The projects compare the potential ecological risk of GM plants what that of non‐GM plants. The projects carried out so far have not found any scientific evidence that GM plants per se present a higher risk than conventionally bred crop plants.

German discussion on glyphosat

Don Huber, a retired American professor of plant pathology, is currently in Germany on a lecture tour. He is warning people of the consequences of using the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate, also known under its brand name Roundup. His former colleagues at Purdue University (USA) vehemently deny these claims. Although they share his general observation that glyphosate can make plants more susceptible to individual pathogens, they say that this fact has been known for some time and is also true of other herbicides. Glyphosate has, they say, been used on a large scale for more than 30 years and there are no indications of any general increase in plant diseases or associated yield losses as claimed by Huber.

Die Grünen (Germany’s Green Party) are calling for an immediate suspension of the authorisation for herbicides containing glyphosate, citing findings from a study by Argentinian embryologist Andre Carrasco published in 2010. Carrasco injected glyphosate into frog embryos, which caused the frogs to develop serious deformities. Carrasco’s experiments and conclusions have, however, been disputed by other scientists. Above all, they doubt whether the high concentrations of glyphosate used in the tests are ever achieved in reality. The German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), which is responsible for authorising plant protection products in Germany, wrote in October 2010 that Carrasco’s study findings were not relevant for the current risk assessment of glyphosate for humans because of methodological weaknesses and a lack of data.

In response to a minor parliamentary question submitted by the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen parliamentary group at the end of August 2011 on the current risk assessment of glyphosate, the German government said that the data currently available did not justify a suspension or restriction of the authorisation for herbicides containing glyphosate. The government cites numerous animal experiments that have provided no indication of genotoxic or carcinogenic risks associated with glyphosate. Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) expressed a similar view in a statement issued in July 2011.

About potato

A team of researchers led by the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has been investigating the effect of different potato varieties on soil quality over the past three years. They included a broad spectrum of varieties in their research: classic varieties, genetically modified (GM) lines and the relevant wild type. The GM potatoes accumulate zeaxanthin in their tubers. Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid that is thought to protect against age-related blindness. In greenhouse experiments they found that the genetic modification of the zeaxanthin potatoes leads to a change in the plant phenotype over and above the intended modification. This could be because the plant is trying to compensate for the modified genetic network structure through alternative metabolic pathways. However, evaluating the results from a broad spectrum of classic varieties, the differences between individual varieties in terms of the traits investigated are greater than those found between the wild type and the transgenic line.

They also observed that the modified plant phenotype leads to differences in the structure and function of the soil micro-organisms in the rhizosphere and, as a result, to different material conversion rates. However, here too, the differences between the wild type and transgenic plants were much smaller than classic varietal effects. Site characteristics and the stage of development of the plants also played an important role.


Zimbabwe: Call for Lifting of GMO Ban On Stockfeeds
- The Herald ( Harare, Zimb.), 4 November 2011

The ban on genetically modified stockfeeds is negatively impacting on the poultry and pig sectors, Mr. Mario Beffa, chairman of the Livestock and Meat Advisory Council has said.

Speaking at a workshop on the constraints affecting the two sectors in Harare on Tuesday, Mr. Beffa said there was urgent need to lift the ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to boost the availability of stockfeeds.

"The relevant authorities need to make considerations on the GMO ban because it is making the availability of stockfeeds difficult since you know that our farmers are failing to meet the demand," said Mr. Beffa.

Europe's opposition to GM crops is arrogant hypocrisy, Kenyan scientist warns
- David Derbyshire, The Observer (UK), 22 October 2011

Kenya has approved the cultivation of GM crops but critics say there is strong grassroots opposition to this in Africa.

Europe's opposition to genetically modified crops is robbing the developing world of a chance to feed itself and could threaten food security, a leading African scientist warns.

Dr Felix M'mboyi of the Kenya-based African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum has accused the European Union of indulging in "hypocrisy and arrogance" and called on development bodies within Europe to let African farmers make full use of GM crops to boost yields and feed a world population expected to reach 7 billion by the end of the year.

However, opponents of GM food said the technology had failed to live up to its promises. GM could actually reduce food security by narrowing the variety of crops grown while making farmers more dependent on multinational companies such as Monsanto and Dupont, they said.

M'mboyi, a former agricultural adviser to the Kenyan government, will make the keynote speech at the Crop World Global conference at the end of this month. He said: "The affluent west has the luxury of choice in the type of technology they use to grow food crops, yet their influence and sensitivities are denying many in the developing world access to such technologies which could lead to a more plentiful supply of food. "This kind of hypocrisy and arrogance comes with the luxury of a full stomach," he said.


Biotech seed hopes for Brazil's harvest
Agrimoney (UK), Nov. 4, 2011

Genetically modified seed, and a green light from soybean sowings, have put Brazilian corn farmers on course to break their harvest record by an even bigger margin than had been thought, with exports to approach an all-time high too. Up to 64m tonnes is forecast for the Brazilian corn crop, the world's third-biggest, in 2011-12, putting it well ahead of the current record, of 58.6m tonnes, set four years ago. It also kept Brazil ahead of the European Union in the production league. The EU lifted its estimate for its own harvest by 2.9m tonnes to 63.7m tonnes, following reports of better-than-expected yields in the west of the bloc, notably in France and Italy.

Farmers' prospects for raising sowings of the grain had been improved by the rapid start to the soybean planting season, signalling an early harvest of the oilseed and a timely seeding of follow-on winter, or safrinha, corn.

"As Brazil adopts new seed varieties developed through biotechnology, Brazil will share the biotechnology market restrictions, mostly in shipping to the EU, shared by other large-scale, modernised agricultural producers," the report said.

News in Science

DNA repair process and the cancer challenge

Scientists from France, Switzerland and the United States have identified how recombination, a key DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) repair process by which genetic material is broken down and joined to other genetic material, has the ability to self-correct and enable DNA to start anew. Co-author Professor Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, one of the heads of Molecular Oncology at the University of California, Davis in the United States, points out that this process 'allows cancer cells to deal with DNA damage in different ways. This repair chemotherapy treatments work by inducing DNA damage'. Published in the journal Nature.

Link between vascular endothelial growth factor and skin cancer stem cell regulation
Researchers in Belgium, in cooperation with German colleagues, have recently shed new light on how vascular endothelial growth factor is instrumental in regulating skin cancer stem cells. The study, presented in the journal Nature, was funded in part by a European Research Council Starting Grant of EUR 1.6 million under the FP7 to support the CANCERSTEM (Stem cells in epithelial cancer initiation and growth') project.
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