News in December 2011
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General - Global

Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review
- Snell Chelseaa et al. , Food and Chemical Toxicology, In Press, doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2011.11.048

The aim of this systematic review was to collect data concerning the effects of diets containing GM maize, potato, soybean, rice, or triticale on animal health. We examined 12 long-term studies (of more than 90 days, up to 2 years in duration) and 12 multigenerational studies (from 2 to 5 generations). We referenced the 90-day studies on GM feed for which long-term or multigenerational study data were available. Many parameters have been examined using biochemical analyses, histological examination of specific organs, hematology and the detection of transgenic DNA. The statistical findings and methods have been considered from each study. Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed. However, some small differences were observed, though these fell within the normal variation range of the considered parameter and thus had no biological or toxicological significance. If required, a 90-day feeding study performed in rodents, according to the OECD Test Guideline, is generally considered sufficient in order to evaluate the health effects of GM feed. The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed. The 90-day OECD Test Guideline seems adequate and sufficient for evaluating health effects of GM plant diets.

Books & Articles

German organic food industry fighting aginst GMO

In the spring, Germany’s organic food industry association, BÖLW, collected over 100,000 signatures for a petition demanding an end to authorisations of GM plants. Timed to coincide with the consultation in the Bundestag’s Petitions Committee on 26 September 2011, the BÖLW published a new study that mentions “massive gaps in the risk assessment of GM plants”. However, the study itself contains some notable gaps: the current level of scientific knowledge on many aspects of the risk assessment of GM plants has been misrepresented, reduced or omitted altogether.

If the BÖLW had its way, the precautionary principle enshrined in the EU would be extended so far that the work involved in authorising genetically modified plants would become unmanageable. For example, whereas a GM plant is currently assessed to see whether certain effects (e.g. impacts on certain insects) or plant substances (e.g. vitamin levels) are within the range found in commercially available conventional plant varieties, the BÖLW is calling for every GM plant to be “systematically assessed for its genetic stability and interaction with the environment under various defined environmental conditions in a kind of ‘stress test’”. If this did become a legal requirement, authorisation – which in the EU is already an expensive, protracted procedure – would become completely unattractive for companies and plant breeders. To allow the safety of a GM plant or food and feed produced from it to be assessed, applicants would be forced to measure data using immense scientific and financial resources that would not provide much more in the way of substantial findings than what we have today.

The study is obviously intended to bring about a ban on GM plants in Europe through the back door by means of extreme authorization requirements. It therefore makes sense to portray the current risk assessment procedure as much less effective than it is. In a number of places, the study claims that GM plants have been approved in cases where there were knowledge gaps, and therefore insufficient basis for a risk assessment.


European Research Area ERA Conference 2012
'Fostering Efficiency, Excellence and Growth. From the public consultation to the completion of ERA'. Registration open!
International Plant & Animal Genome XX 14 - 18 January 2012, San Diego, CA, USA

Designed to provide a forum on recent developments and future plans for plant & animal genome projects.

Metabolomics & Systems Biology
20 - 22 February 2012, San Francisco, CA, USA

Metabolomics-2012 will serve as a catalyst for the advances in the study of Metabolomics & Systems Biology by connecting scientists within and across disciplines at sessions and exhibition held at the venue.

5th Proteins Congress 2012 02 - 03 April 2012, Copthorne Tara Hotel, London, UK

The 5th Proteins Congress seeks to address the current trends and business models in advancing protein and antibody therapeutics in the biopharma market.

World Gene Therapy Congress 2012 21 - 23 May 2012, London, UK

The senior director-level conference that tackles all the key scientific and technical issues facing the gene therapy industry and where decision-makers from the complete Gene Therapy value chain meet to learn and plan for the future.

Europe - EU

Project Horizon accepted
The new Horizon 2020 web site is now online.


Parliament and Council negotiations on EU budget 2014-20 (including overall budget for Horizon 2020)

Mid 2012: Final calls under 7th Framework Programme for Research to bridge gap towards Horizon 2020

By end 2013: Adoption of legislative acts by Parliament and Council on Horizon 2020

1/1/2014: Horizon 2020 starts; launch of first calls

Consultation on the future members of the ERC Scientific Council

The research community in Europe is being consulted on potential candidates for membership of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC). Scientific Council members are appointed by the European Commission on the recommendation of an independent Identification Committee, which is conducting the consultation exercise. The consultation contributes to the upcoming renewal of the Scientific Council, at the end of the term of office of a number of serving members.

Survey and outcomes of cultural heritage research projects supported in the context of EU environmental research programmes

This study synthesises the vast amount of information resulting from cultural heritage research projects supported by the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh European Framework Programme for Research (FP). Particular emphasis is put on outcomes and the global impact of these projects. It emerges from the analysis that the networking within and between project consortia throughout the various FPs has contributed towards improving the knowledge needed for preserving cultural heritage and created a European research community in the field of cultural heritage preservation. However, further efforts are required to improve communication and coordination of research including strengthening links with policy and user needs.

Longer-term impact of EU funding of research in the field of Environment and Health

The «Study on the longer-term impact of European Union funding of research in the field of Environment and Health» highlights the main achievements of research projects funded by the European Union (EU) during Framework Programme 5, 6 and 7 (first three calls). It also evaluated the contribution of EU-funded research to the implementation of the European Environment and Health Action Plan (EHAP) 2004-2010.

Cultivation of GM maize 1507

New EFSA risk assessment published: No concerns, but precautionary measures for butterflies and moths.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has reassessed the environmental safety of GM maize 1507. According to the new evaluation, approving cultivation of this insect-resistant maize line in the EU would not raise safety concerns. However, certain measures are to be carried out to protect butterflies and moths. The European Commission now has to draw up a new proposal for a Council decision. In 2007 Stavros Dimas, who was the European Environment Commissioner at the time, opposed the authorization of maize 1507.


Honey-free Europe
- John Davison, Director of Research (retired) INRA Versailles

On the 6th of September the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) made a judgement concerning the presence of pollen from the genetically modified Monsanto maize MON810 in honey.

The ECJ decision classified pollen, in honey, as an ingredient, rather than as an 'adventitious and technically unavoidable presence' as under Regulation 1829/2003. This has grave implications for continued honey production in the EU. Separate authorizations would be necessary for each GM-crop cultivated in the EU. Neither of the two GMOs cultivated in Europe (MON810 maize or Amflora potato) have such authorizations at the present time.

Consequently, any honey containing GM-pollen must be withdrawn from the market while awaiting authorization, and all honey must be subjected to the considerable costs of GMO quantification, which will be particularly high due to the zero tolerance imposed by the ECJ. Thus will drive up the price of honey and cause most small amateur bee-keepers to go out of business. The situation for imported honey is similar, or worse, since most source countries USA, Canada, South America and China also grow GM-crops many of which do not have EC authorizations.

Finally, the ECJ decision will likely put an end to GMO field trials in Europe, which are necessary for food and feed security in the EU.


Africa needs green revolution to boost food
- Svetlana Kovalyova, Reuters Africa, Dec 1, 2011

Africa will rely on non-transgenic crop breeding to boost food output to feed its rapidly growing population in the coming decades but will also need genetically modified products (GM), the head of a pan-African farm think tank said on Wednesday.

The world needs to boost cereals output by 1 billion tonnes and produce 200 million extra tonnes of livestock products a year by 2050 to feed a population projected to rise to 9 billion from about 7 billion now, the United Nations estimates. Even if developing countries double food output by 2050, one person in 20, or about 370 million people, would still risk being undernourished, most of whom would be in Africa and Asia, the U.N's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates.

Africa's population is expected to double to about 2 billion people by 2050 and the continent would need to double its food output by that time with some countries having to triple food production, Monty Jones, executive director of Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), told Reuters. "I don't think we should exclude genetically modified products. If they help to increase yields, have stable yields, why not? ... You cannot say "No, I don't want GMOs" while your people are dying," he said.

The spread of GM products in Africa would remain limited in the near term because only six countries on the continent have passed regulations to allow their use and just three of them, Egypt, South Africa and Burkina Faso, commercialise GM crops, Jones said. The global seed leader Monsanto is the main supplier of GM seeds to those countries but other biotech companies are also active there, he said.


Pesticide manufacturers opposing Bt brinjal, says expert
- Rajiv Mani, Times of India, Nov 30, 2011, 08.08AM IST

ALLAHABAD: Opposition to introduction of Bt brinjal in the country is not backed by technical reasons. Rather it is due to the interest of chemical pesticide manufacturers, who apprehend monetary losses in the event of introduction of this genetically engineered crop, says a pioneer in the field of genetically engineered crops, Alex K Gaponenko, from the Koltzov Institute of Developmental Biology, RAS, Moscow.

It is a known fact that brinjal is prone to insects and pests attacks and diseases. The most common is the fruit and shoot bore (FSB), for which resistance has not been identified. It causes losses between 45 and 50 per cent in commercial plants and in certain cases even more. Bt brinjal is a transgenic one, created by inserting genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringlensis into brinjal. The transformation was carried out using genetic engineering techniques.

Import of vegetable seeds in China
China Daily, Dec 23

China's mammoth vegetable sector used nearly 100,000 tons of seeds to produce 650 million tons of vegetables last year, according to Liao Xiyuan, deputy chief of Ministry of Agriculture's seed management bureau.

The influx of foreign seeds has been rising, Liao said. By December 5 this year, for example, the import value hit $121 million - 3.1 times the value in 2004, Liao cited Customs figures as saying.

"The majority of Chinese greenhouse vegetable seed companies are not capable of breeding and producing seeds or possessing copyright varieties," said another bureau official, who preferred unidentified. "They are mainly agents or producing and marketing some conventional seeds."

He said that overseas seed companies have grabbed 15 percent of the Chinese greenhouse vegetable market and nearly 20 percent in Shandong.

Foreign seeds are usually several or dozens of times more expensive than the homebred, he said. That explains why the value of Chinese seeds, which hold 80 percent of the Shandong market, equals just 20 percent of the imported seeds' value.

Because foreign seeds boast higher germination rates and promise good results, local seedling companies would buy them regardless of the price, said Wang Rui, an executive with New Century Breeding Co in Shouguang.

Nearly all seeds the company uses come from Israel, the Netherlands and Japan, and orders have been already placed for next spring's seedlings, he said. "Shouguang farmers think it pays off to buy such shoots, because better harvest and high-quality products are usually guaranteed."


Biotechnology Could Contribute to Field Crop Yield Trends
Source: Ohio State University Extension, Dec. 13, 2011

Carl Zulauf, a professor with the Department of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Economics and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, studied yield trends for corn, soybeans and upland cotton, three crops most widely associated with the adoption of biotechnology. He then compared yield trends for those crops with 11 other crops for which adoption of biotech seed is virtually nonexistent.

"Biotechnology varieties first became available for commercial use in the U.S. in 1996," Zulauf explains. "By 2011, they accounted for 88%, 90% and 94% of the acres planted to corn, upland cotton and soybeans, respectively."

With 15 years of yield data to analyze, Zulauf chose to compare trends from the biotech-influenced era with yield data from years 1940 through 1995, noting that 1940 marked the year when the average yield of most U.S. crops began increasing, due in part to traditional breeding methods.

In evaluating the data, he discovered that only seven of the 14 crops exhibited a higher estimated yield trend during the 1996-2011 period than the comparison years of 1940-1995. The seven crops are barley, corn, cotton, peanuts, rice, soybeans and sugar beets. In other words, of the non-biotech-influenced crops, only four of 11 exhibited a higher yield trend in the more recent of the two data sets.

"This analysis finds that, while the yield trend increased for all three biotech crops after 1996, the yield trend increased for less than half of the crops for which biotech varieties are of limited importance," Zulauf says. "This finding does not prove that biotechnology is the reason for the higher yield trend for corn, cotton and soybeans. It only reveals that the evidence on linear yield trends is not inconsistent with such a conclusion."

Labeling of Biotech Foods Is Unnecessary and Unconstitutional

Product labelling that conveys essential information is important, but mandatory labelling of gene-spliced foods is a bad idea. First, it implies risks for which there is no evidence. Second, it flies in the face of worldwide scientific consensus about the appropriate basis of regulation, which focuses palpable risks, not the use of certain techniques. Third, it would push the costs of product development into the stratosphere. Finally, the requirement would constitute a punitive tax on a superior technology.

With the exception of wild game, wild berries, wild mushrooms and fish and shellfish, all the plant- and animal-derived foods in our diets - even the overpriced organic stuff at Whole Foods - have resulted from genetic modification that employs techniques that are far less precise and predictable.

The safety record of gene-spliced plants and foods derived from them is extraordinary. After the cultivation of more than 3 billion acres (cumulatively) of gene-spliced crops worldwide and the consumption of more than 3 trillion servings of food and food ingredients from such crops by inhabitants of North America alone, there has not been a single ecosystem disrupted or a single confirmed adverse reaction.

News in Science

Proteins stopping HIV in its tracks?

Researchers from the University of Manchester and the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research in the United Kingdom have shed new light on how the body's proteins can fight the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1). The study was presented in journal Nature.

In an earlier study, a team of scientists from France and the United States observed that a protein named SAMHD1 can hinder HIV from replicating in a group of white blood cells called myeloid cells. In this latest research, the British team has demonstrated how SAMHD1 prevents the virus from replicating itself within these cells, paving the way for development of drugs that imitate this biological process to ensure that HIV cannot replicate in the sentinel cells of the immune system.

The team expressed SAMHD1 in Escherichia coli strain BL21 and purified using Strep-Tactin affinity and size-exclusion chromatography. They incorporated determination selenium into the protein by adding defined culture media with selenomethionine. The researchers also evaluated nucleic acid hydrolysis products with gel electrophoresis using 15% polyacrylamide gels for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) substrates and 1.5% agarose gel for ribonucleic acid (RNA) substrates.

'HIV is one of the most common chronic infectious diseases on the planet, so understanding its biology is critical to the development of novel antiviral compounds,' says senior author Dr Michelle Webb, leader of the study in the School of Biomedicine at the University of Manchester.

'SAMHD1 has been shown to prevent the HIV virus [from] replicating in the certain cells but precisely how it does this wasn't known,' she explains. 'Our research has found that SAMHD1 is able to degrade deoxynucleotides, which are the building blocks required for replication of the virus. If we can stop the virus from replicating within these cells, we can prevent it from spreading to other cells and halt the progress of the infection.'

Commenting on the study's findings, co-author Dr Ian Taylor from the National Institute for Medical Research says: 'We now wish to define more precisely, at a molecular level, how SAMHD1 functions. This will pave the way for new therapeutic approaches to HIV-1, and even vaccine development.'

Plant-derived anti-HIV antibody safe for humans

The specific drug is an antibody that targets and neutralises the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which could eventually be used as part of a topical vaginal preparation to prevent transmission of the infection. The drug was produced in genetically modified tobacco plants, extracted and purified to a quality and specification that was approved by European pharmaceutical regulatory authorities.

The "Phase I" clinical trial was launched at the University of Surrey Clinical Research Centre (UK) in June and has just been completed. Further clinical testing will be required to assess the new drug's effectiveness. The results show that the plant derived monoclonal antibody is safe and well tolerated. This study opens the way for further development of this drug product into clinical trials to confirm clinical efficacy. They also pave the way for the manufacture of other important drug targets using the genetically modified plant manufacturing platform, a technology which will facilitate the economic production of important drugs at very large scale.

The programme was a EU-funded project Pharma-Planta. Contacts:

Michael Jennings (+32 2 296 33 88)
Monika Wcislo (+32 2 298 65 95).

New nomenclature for Biomphalaria species in Lake Victoria?

Lake Victoria, one of the African Great Lakes, is a hotspot for Schistosoma mansoni, a major human parasite responsible for schistosomiasis (snail fever) that uses freshwater snails of the genus Biomphalaria as intermediate hosts. Past studies linked some Biomphalaria species with varying parasite compatibility, which impacts local transmission. Lake Victoria, according to experts, is home to two species: B. choanomphala and B. sudanica. But questions remained about the taxonomy of these species. Now researchers from the United Kingdom have discovered that molecular groupings are inconsistent with morphological divisions. The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, was funded in part by the CONTRAST project which received almost EUR 3 million in funding under the International Cooperation Cross-cutting activity of the FP6.

Scientists sequence spider mite genome

An international research team has identified the first genome of the spider mite (Tetranychus urticae), which is part of the chelicerates — what experts say is one the largest groups of animals on our planet. Published in the journal Nature, the study discovered the genetic basis of the capacity of the spider mite to survive by feeding on more than 1 000 plants. This research, funded in part by a Marie Curie Incoming International Fellowship grant under the FP7, sheds new light on the evolution of arthropod and plant-herbivore interactions. This could lead to the development of new plant protection strategies.

Targeting brain

Researchers led by Professor Neil Marrion at the University of Bristol’s School of Physiology and Pharmacology in the United Kingdom worked on a subtype of ion channel called SK (Small conductance calcium-activated potassium) channels. Ion channels are proteins able to control the excitability of nerves. Ion channels, which are constructed like an electrical circuit, enable the flow of 'charged' potassium, sodium and calcium ions to enter or exit cell membranes through a network of pores formed by the channels, a subtype of which is the SK channel family.

Apamin, a natural toxin found in bee venom, was used by the team. This toxin can block various SK channel types. These channels allow potassium ions to flow in and out of nerve cells that control activity. Benefitting from apamin's ability to block a subtype of SK channel better than the others, the researchers successfully identified how three subtype SK channels (SK1 through SK3) can be selectively blocked.

The ability of apamin and other ligands to block SK channels reveals how the channels are folded to enable the binding of a drug. So drugs can be created to block those SK channels that are composed of at least two SK channel subunits to ensure a more effective fight against dementia and depression.

'The problem with developing drugs to target cellular processes has been that many cell types distributed throughout the body might all have the same ion channels,' explains Professor Neil Marrion of the University of Bristol, one of the authors of the study. 'SK channels are also distributed throughout the brain, but it is becoming obvious that these channels might be made of more than one type of SK channel subunit. It is likely that different nerves have SK channels made from different subunits. This would mean that developing a drug to block a channel made of only one SK channel protein will not be therapeutically useful, but knowing that the channels are composed of multiple SK subunits will be the key.'

Commenting on the results of the study, co-author Vincent Seutin from the Centre Interfacultaire de Recherche du Médicament at the Université de Ličge in Belgium says: 'Our study also shows a difference in the way apamin and non-peptidic (potentially a useful drug) ligands interact with the channel. This may have important implications in terms of drug design.

Presented in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Scientists discover what makes flies fly
Scientists in Austria and Germany have discovered a genetic switch that regulates the formation of flight muscles in flies, creatures with very small wings in relation to their bodies. The study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that spalt proteins switch myofibres from tubular to fibrillar fate during development. This function is potentially conserved in the heart of vertebrates: the stretch-stimulated muscle resembles the muscle used for insect flight
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