News

Africa

The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has been awarded the Africa Food Prize for 2018 at the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Kigali, Rwanda on September 7, 2018. IITA is the first institution to receive the distinguished award.

Chaired by H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria, the independent Africa Food Prize Committee selected IITA for its deep commitment over many decades to producing a steady stream of innovations that have boosted the nutrition and incomes of millions of people across Africa. In recent years, IITA has also included a critical focus on connecting crop science to creating employment for Africa's youth, and ensuring African farmers can adapt to the stresses of climate change and the growing threat to an array of crop pests and plant diseases.

"IITA stood out to us for its steadfast and inspiring commitment to a research agenda that aligns with both our African traditions as well as the evolving needs of African farmers and consumers for the latest advances in food production," Obasanjo said. He also cited the powerful bonds with African farmers and African communities that IITA has helped forge over the years.

For more details, read the news release from the Africa Food Prize.

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Americas

As the planet continues to warm, plants face a dilemma. Stomata, the same tiny opening in their leaves they have to open to exchange gases also release water. They can close the holes to stay hydrated in hotter, drier conditions, but may miss out on critical carbon dioxide in doing so.

A research team at the Bergmann Lab at Stanford University figured out how plants regulate the number of stomata that each leaf develops. Using Arabidopsis, the team looked at cytokinin, an important plant hormone that was long thought to influence stomatal development and coordinate it with other processes happening throughout the plant.

Anne Vatén, lead author of the paper published in Developmental Cell, analyzed the entire genome of Arabidopsis thaliana and confirmed that genes associated with cytokinin were indeed highly active in cells that were about to become stomata. The research team found that by dialing up or down the levels of this hormone in specific cells in hundreds of laboratory plants, the researchers found they could subtly alter the number of stomata the plant makes. They also discovered that cytokinin activates the gene SPEECHLESS that puts cells on the path toward becoming stomata.

For more details, read the Stanford news article.

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Researchers at the University of Kentucky (UK) have discovered the function and placement of another component in a pathway that triggers plant disease resistance. The team, led by Pradeep Kachroo and Aardra Kachroo studied the chemical signals involved in cell-to-cell communication.

The research team found that pipecolic acid, a small organic compound derived from lysine, initiates the process by inducing the accumulation of free radicals. Free radicals initiate a pathway that results in the accumulation of the signaling chemicals salicylic acid and glycerol-3-phosphate. Salicylic acid, glycerol-3-phosphate, and to a lesser extent, pipecolic acid then travel within the plant as part of the defense "preparedness" process. There, salicylic acid and glycerol-3-phosphate initiate additional pipecolic acid synthesis to continue this signaling pathway.

Pradeep Kachroo said that scientists knew the importance of pipecolic acid in systemic signaling, but did not understand how it related to the other known systemic chemical signals. Now they do not only know how pipecolic acid functions, but also how the chemical cooperates with other signals.

For details, read the UK news release.

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Argentina is set to commercialize the first drought and salt tolerant soybean in 2019. This is an important step towards combating the increased risk of drought globally because of global warming.

The gene responsible for the new technology is HB4, which is applicable not just in soybeans but also in wheat. The drought resistant soybean seeds were developed by splicing a drought resistant sunflower gene into a soybean seed. The drought tolerant soybeans were tested in the field for three years and results showed that they are as nutritious as conventional soybeans, will not be toxic to animals or humans, and have no negative effect on the environment. The seeds were developed by Rachel Chan, a scientist from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council and professor at the National University of Litoral. The seed is owned by Bioceres.

Read more from the Genetic Literacy Project and DVI Report.

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Asia and the Pacific

Australia's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has issued license DIR 163 to Nuseed Pty Ltd., for the limited and controlled release (field trial) of canola genetically modified (GM) for altered oil content and herbicide tolerance.

The field trial (License Application DIR 163) is authorized to take place for 5 years, in sites to be selected from 95 possible local government areas in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, on a maximum area of 150 hectares per year. The field trial will gather data under field conditions for agronomic performance, oil profile and content, nutritional assessment, compositional analysis, molecular analysis, and genetic stability. The GM canola from this field trial would not be used for commercial human food or animal feed.

The final Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plan (RARMP) concludes that this field trial poses negligible risks to people and the environment and does not require specific risk treatment measures. The finalized RARMP, together with a summary of the RARMP, a set of Questions and Answers on this decision and a copy of the license, are available online from the DIR 163 page in the OGTR website.

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More than 150 executive and legislative officials from the Philippine House of Representatives, as well as selected members of the judiciary attended the Forum on the Global State of Biotechnology, a biotech outreach program conducted by the SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center in collaboration with the United States Embassy Manila, the House of Representatives, Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA), and the Philippine Association of Law schools (PALS). The Forum was held on two separate events held on September 6 and 7, 2018 as part of an outreach grant from the U.S. Department of State.

Experts and scientists enlightened the participants of the two events on different biotechnology issues. Dr. Lourdes D. Taylo, Study Leader of the Bt Eggplant Project of the University of the Philippines Los Baños-Institute of Plant Breeding (UPLB-IPB); Dr. Donald MacKenzie, Executive Director for International Crop Improvement of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri, USA; and Dr. Evelyn Mae Mendoza, academician of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) spoke about biotechnology trends in developing countries, the judicial and legislative process involved in crafting biotechnology regulations, and the science and strategic importance of biotechnology, particularly on the country's agricultural economy and food security.

Meanwhile, distinguished members of Congress, namely, House Deputy Speaker Cong. Sharon Garin; Cong. John Marvin Nieto, member of the House Committee on Science and Technology; and AGRI Party List representative, Cong. Orestes Salon encouraged the biotech community to continue pushing for the development of agricultural biotechnology in the country and assured the government's support behind this advocacy. Cong. Salon stated that he is keen to work with institutions in coming up with a more comprehensive legislative agenda. "This is the future, together with organic farming. We need to move fast to create a policy environment conducive to the growth of the [agri-biotech] industry," he added.

House Deputy Speaker Garin expressed her belief that biotechnology is a key to a hunger-free Philippines. Cong. Garin said, "As long as we make necessary precautions, we can really make a difference. Not just for the state of agriculture, but also for food security. Agriculture and technology can go hand in hand in making sure that no Filipino is hungry."

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

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Scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) have engineered tiny carbon-capturing engines from blue-green algae into plants. This breakthrough promises to help boost the yields of important food crops such as wheat, cowpeas, and cassava.

Lead researcher Dr. Ben Long said that for the first time, they have inserted tiny compartments from blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, into crop plants that form part of a system that could lead to a 60 percent increase in plant growth and yield. The compartments, called carboxysomes, make cyanobacteria so efficient at transforming carbon dioxide into energy-rich sugars. Dr. Long's team is trying to insert a turbo-charged carbon-capturing engine into plants by mimicking cyanobacteria.

Rubisco, the enzyme that fixes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is slow and finds it difficult to differentiate between carbon dioxide and oxygen, leading to wasteful energy loss. Cyanobacteria, however, uses a 'CO2 concentrating mechanism' to deliver large amounts of the gas into their carboxysomes, increasing the speed of CO2 transformation into sugar and minimizes oxygen reactions. The Rubisco enzyme inside cyanobacteria captures carbon dioxide and generates sugars about three times faster than the Rubisco found in plants.

 

For more details, read the ANU news release.

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Europe

The John Innes Centre (JIC) in the United Kingdom has formed a new alliance with the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Spain, and the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Germany. The alliance will promote the vision of a pan-continental European Research Area.

The partnership will initially focus on enabling graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to work together, share experiences and move between the three centers. Dr. Inmaculada Ferriol-Safont from Barcelona is the first early-career researcher to move to Norwich as part of the alliance. Other early-career researchers from the three institutes are already planning a conference for their group in Catalonia in the Autumn of 2019, which will facilitate the building of many new networks for the future.

Professor Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre, said "We remain committed to being part of an open and successful European Research Area. For that reason, I am absolutely delighted to join with two of our strongest peers in Europe to form this new alliance."

For more details, read the JIC news release.

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The Netherlands Genetic Modification Commission (COGEM) was asked to give an advice regarding the possible environmental risks of the importing and processing of GM soybean (MON87751xMON87701x MON87708xMON89788), which expresses insect resistance and herbicide tolerance traits.

Based on the molecular characterization of the GM soybean, the biotech crop meets the requirements of COGEM. "There are no reasons to assume that expression of the inserted genes causes this GM soybean to become wild… COGEM considers the environmental risks of the import and processing of the GM soybean MON87751xMON87701xMON87708xMON89788 negligible," as stated in the opinion of COGEM.

It was also stressed that because a food safety assessment was already done by other bodies, COGEM did not need to evaluate the risks of incidental consumption in the license application.

Read the published opinion of COGEM in Dutch.

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Research

Verticillium wilt (VW) is a highly devastating disease that affect a wide range of crops, causing major losses in agriculture. The most effective way to combat this disease is determined to be the usage of resistant cultivars, which are limited in most crops. One of these crops is cotton, the most important fiber in the world textile industry.

To address this problem in cotton, scientist Wangzhen Guo and colleagues from Nanjing Agricultural University utilize RNA interference (RNAi) to turn off pathogenic genes of Verticillium dahliae fungus in infected cotton seedlings. They first characterize virulence genes called VdRGS genes and find that VdRGS1 is responsible in the spore production, hyphal development, microsclerotia formation, and pathogenicity of the fungus. VdRGS1 is also found to be conserved and essential in the virulence of the fungus. Silencing this gene in cotton infected plants through agro-infiltration showed enhanced resistance of cotton to VW. This finding allows future establishment of resistance in cotton and other crops using the technology.

For more information, read the article in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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Breeding salt tolerant rice varieties for production in the Mekong Delta is highly helpful to adapt to the increase of salinity intrusion in this region due to the climate change. From this demand, Vietnamese researchers conducted a study using Pokkali, a highly salt-tolerant rice variety as the donor of the salt tolerance gene, which is transferred to the two rice varieties possessing the high yield and good grain quality by the backcrossing method.

As a result, the BC3F3 lines were selected, including 16 lines of the cross combination, OM231/Pokkali and 20 lines of the cross combination, OM231/Pokkali for evaluating the salinity tolerance ability in the solution medium containing salt (NaCl) at the concentration of 4%; and at the same time, for identifying the presence of the salt tolerance gene in these lines by SSR marker analysis, using the primer RM1267. Based on the results, 10 salt tolerant lines were identified, of which 2 lines, namely, D4 and D11 from OM231/Pokkali, and three lines, namely, D22, D24 and D33 from OM238/Pokkali possessed good agronomic traits and grain quality with low amylose contents (<20%) in particular. These lines will be advanced for consecutive selections to develop the salt toletant varieties with a potential of application in production.

For more information, read the article in Vietnamese in the Journal of Agriculture and Development.

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Heat stress is one of the major factors causing the reduction of seed yield and production. The pollen development and flowering stages were the most sensitive to heat stress that inhibits the pollen germination. AtHSP101 gene encodes the Chaperon protein B1 (ClpB1) which belongs to the heat shock protein 100 (HSP100) family required for accumulation for abiotic stress such as drought.

Microary database showed that AtHSP101 preferred expression in reproductive organs such as pollen grain and seed. In order to develop heat tolerant plant through gene transformation approach the researchers cloned AtHSP101 gene from Arabidopsis thaliana and created the expression vector for plant transformation. The AtHSP101 gene was amplified from its cDNA with 2.736 kb and introduced into a cloning vector pBluescript. Results of cloning were confirmed by sequencing and digestion with AscI and speI enzymes. Finally, AtHSP101 was transferred to an expression vector pER8 under the control of UBQ14 promoter that can be used for generating heat tolerant plants by transformation approach in Vietnam.

For more information, read the article in Vietnamese in Journal of Agriculture and Rural Development

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Brown fiber cotton plays a key role in the textile industry, as it is environmentally friendly and does not require dyeing. However, its poor yield and quality threaten its marketability. Thus, researcher Zhongxu Lin from National Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement in Huazhong Agricultural University and colleagues studied the genetic basis of fiber color and lint-related traits in brown fiber cotton through linkage and association mapping.

Using advanced genetic tools, the researchers fine-mapped Lc1, the most studied genomic region for cotton brown fiber trait. They identified two main quantitative trait loci (QTLs), namely, qBF-A07-1 and qBF-A07-2 controlling color generation and color variation. These QTLs are also found to interact to negatively affect fiber yield and quality of brown cotton. Thus, they conclude that a balance between color and fiber quality and yield must be achieved to breed elite brown fiber cultivars that will have a good market value.

For more details, read the study in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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New Breeding Technologies

Male sterility (MS) is an important tool for hybrid seed production in many crops. In maize, the development of more male sterile line resources is still highly desirable, and the availability of new genetic tools such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system provides an alternative for modifying MS genes in maize.

Scientist Yunjun Liu of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and colleagues targeted the MS8 gene in maize for gene editing. This gene encodes a putative ß-1,3-galactosyltransferase and affects the meiotic stage in anther development. Results show MS8 gene mutations in the F1 and F2 generations but not in the T0 generation, which were revealed through DNA sequencing. Further analysis uncovered a hemizygous (only one copy, instead of two) mutation in the gene, thus explaining the segregation of the trait in the F1 and F2 generations. Nevertheless, the study proves the inheritability of the mutation in maize, demonstrating the utility of CRISPR-Cas9 in male sterile line production. These mutant lines can be hybridized to other elite lines. The researchers also addressed the need to optimize and improve their gene targeting tool for a higher genome editing efficiency.

For more information, read the research article in Frontiers in Plant Science.

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Multiplex CRISPR-Cas9 has been used in some crops, but promoter optimization is hardly reported. Researcher Ryosuke Hashimoto and colleagues from Tokushima University in Japan used various Cas9 expression promoters with different gRNA expression combinations to edit genes in tomato.

The researchers design "all-in-one" plasmids with different promoters for multiplex gene editing and selected transformed calli through GFP fluorescence. They find varying promoter-dependent mutation patterns among the tomato calli employed with the designed plasmids via PCR. Among the designed promoters, the tomato ELONGATION FACTOR-1α (SlEF1α) promoter drove the highest efficiency for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing, with specific mutation patterns produced. These results highlight promoter optimization for CRISPR-Cas9 editing will enable precise disruptions of functional domains in tomato.

For more information, read the article in Frontiers in Plant Science.

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Cassava's increasing economic importance but difficulty to improve genetically are what motivated scientist Herve Vanderschuren from Institute of Molecular Plant Biology in Switzerland and colleagues to utilize genome editing to accelerate breeding for modified starch in cassava. 

Cassava plays a big role as a staple food and a highly favored commodity in the multibillion starch industry. However, its genetic improvement is hindered by its recalcitrance to genetic transformation and in vitro regeneration, poor fertility of farmer-preferred varieties, difficulty to breed conventionally, and rare flowering in glasshouse environments. In the study by Vanderschuren and colleagues, they used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genes controlling flowering (FLOWERING LOCUS T) and amylose production (GBSS and PTST1). Results showed reduced or eliminated amylose content in cassava starch. Such starch quality is favored by farmers and consumers due to its low pasting temperature and high viscosity. Modification of the flowering gene allowed them to hasten flowering, thereby accelerating selection for transgene-free edited plants. The next step of the research is the production of more seeds of these mutants for future characterization and breeding in the field.

For more information, read the article in Science Advances.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Scientist Steven Mennerick says that the most commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs were approved for use more than three decades ago, and new ways to develop new medications are necessary. Thus, he and his colleagues from the Washington University School of Medicine utilized CRISPR-Cas9 to determine the function of a neuroreceptor delta gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) to pave the way to new drug development.

The GABA receptor binds the neurotransmitter GABA, which is known to slow down brain processes that lead to excessive negative thoughts and feelings. Scientists have thought of utilizing this receptor to design new drugs in the past, but the presence of other types of GABA receptors hindered them from doing so. Using genome editing, researchers isolated the function of the delta GABA receptor and confirm that this receptor is involved in alleviating depression. The study opens the door for further discovery of antidepressant drugs with more specific functions and less side effects.

For more information, read the article in Neuroscience News.

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Africa may soon get lower rates of mosquito-borne diseases in the near future. This is after the National Biosafety Authority of Burkina Faso approved the release of up to 10,000 genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes to combat Malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. The approved release will be the first time that any GE animal will be released into the wild in the whole African continent.

According to Abdoulaye Diabate, Target Malaria's lead researcher for Burkina Faso, the GE mosquitoes have a "sterile male" mutation wherein none of the male mosquitoes will be capable of having an offspring. They are also weaker than natural mosquitoes, so they will die in a matter of months. The GE mosquitoes will be initially released this month in Bana, a village near the researchers' laboratory. Bana's residents have been informed about the release.

GE mosquitoes were previously released in Brazil and Cayman Islands, which successfully decreased the incidences of mosquito-borne diseases.

Read more from Scientific American.

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