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From PestNet

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Use of the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 could help to breed cacao trees that exhibit desirable traits such as enhanced resistance to diseases, according to Penn State plant scientists.

The cacao tree, which grows in tropical regions, produces the cocoa beans that are the raw material of chocolate. Reliable productivity from cacao plants is essential to the multibillion-dollar chocolate industry, the economies of producing countries and the livelihoods of millions of smallholder cacao farmers.

But each year, several plant diseases severely limit global production, with 20-30 percent of cocoa pods destroyed preharvest, noted lead author Andrew Fister, postdoctoral scholar in plant science, College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State.

“In West Africa, severe outbreaks of fungal diseases can destroy all cacao fruit on a single farm,” said Fister. “Because diseases are a persistent problem for cacao, improving disease resistance has been a priority for researchers. But development of disease-resistant varieties has been slowed by the need for sources of genetic resistance and the long generation time of cacao trees.”

The researchers reported recently, in Frontiers in Plant Science, the study results, which were thought to be the first to demonstrate the feasibility of using cutting-edge CRISPR technology to improve Theobroma cacao.

CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It is a way to modify an organism’s genome by precisely delivering a DNA-cutting enzyme, Cas9, to a targeted region of DNA. The resulting change can delete or replace specific DNA pieces, thereby promoting or disabling certain traits.

Previous work in cacao identified a gene, known as TcNPR3, that suppresses the plant’s disease response. The researchers hypothesized that using CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out this gene would result in enhanced disease resistance.

Andrew Fister with cacao trees

Andrew Fister, postdoctoral scholar in plant science, stands among cacao trees in the African country of Ivory Coast. Pods turning yellow and black are infected with black pod disease.

Image: Désiré Pokou

 

To test their hypothesis, they used Agrobacterium — a plant pathogen modified to remove its ability to cause disease — to introduce CRISPR-Cas9 components into detached cacao leaves. Subsequent analysis of treated tissue found deletions in 27 percent of TcNPR3 copies.

When infected with Phytopthera tropicalis, a naturally occurring pathogen of cacao and other plants, the treated leaves showed greater resistance to the disease. The results suggested that the mutation of only a fraction of the copies of the targeted gene may be sufficient to trigger downstream processes, resulting in systemic disease resistance in the plant.

The researchers also created CRISPR gene-edited cacao embryos, which they will grow into mature trees to test the effectiveness of this approach at a whole-plant level.

This research builds on more than 30 years of biotechnology research aimed at building a better cacao tree, according to senior author Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology and leader of Penn State’s endowed cocoa research program.

“Our lab has developed several tools for the improvement of cacao, and CRISPR is just one more tool,” he said. “But compared to conventional breeding and other techniques, CRISPR speeds up the process and is much more precise. It’s amazingly efficient in targeting the DNA you want, and so far, we haven’t detected any off-target effects.”

In addition to providing a new tool to accelerate breeding, CRISPR-Cas9 technology can help deliver insights into basic biology by offering a method to efficiently assess gene function, the researchers said.

“With CRISPR, we can quickly ‘break’ a gene and see what happens to the plant,” Guiltinan explained. “We have a list of genes in the pipeline that we want to test.”

There may be thousands of genes involved in disease resistance, Fister added.

“We want to evaluate as many as we can,” he said.

The ultimate goals of Penn State cacao research are to help raise the standard of living for smallholder growers and stabilize a threatened cocoa supply by developing plants that can withstand diseases, climate change and other challenges, according to co-author Siela Maximova, senior scientist and professor of horticulture.

“Any production increases in the last 20 years have been mostly due to putting more land into production,” said Maximova, who co-directs the cacao research program. “But land, water, fertilizer and other inputs are limited. To enhance sustainability, we need plants that are more vigorous and disease resistant and that produce more and better-quality beans.

“This study provides a ‘proof of concept’ that CRISPR-Cas9 technology can be a valuable tool in the effort to achieve these goals,” she said.

Lena Landherr Sheaffer, research assistant in plant science, Penn State, also was a co-author on the paper.

This work was supported by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the Penn State Endowed Program in the Molecular Biology of Cacao, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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From PestNet

Mars aims to triple cocoa yield through development of disease-resistant cocoa

Company, cocoa farmers to tap genetic knowledge to improve crops, reduce pesticide use.

 

cocoa

Mars, Inc., plans to triple its global cocoa yield by developing more disease-resistant clones and continuing to improve farmer practices based on genetic knowledge of cocoa.

The global confectionery/pet food conglomerate has published research in the journal Frontiers of Plant Science that builds on work done by Mars, IBM and the USDA to help sequence the cocoa genome and make it publicly available.

The research also adds to work on higher-yielding pest- and disease-resistant clonal varieties Mars has helped develop with cocoa-growing countries. Applying this knowledge is expected to help farmers produce more cocoa on less land and with fewer pesticides, which can improve farmers’ livelihoods.

Specifically, Mars, Inc., in partnership with governmental and academic research organizations, used genetic markers to connect genetically-related cocoa trees and identify genes related to resistance of frosty pod, black pod and Ceratocystis wilt diseases.

In a keynote speech he delivered at the Fourth World Cocoa Conference in Berlin last month, Frank Mars, fourth-generation family member and member of the company’s board of directors, outlined Mars’ objectives in relation to this research.

“Over the next 10 years, Mars aims to develop even better disease-resistant clones,” Mars told conference attendees. “We’ll focus on both simple and advanced production methodologies and improved farmer practices with a goal to triple cocoa yields globally. This would free up land occupied with unproductive cocoa trees for farmers to grow other crops, including those for their own consumption. But to achieve this will require all of us in this room to think differently and work harder together; not only on better plant varieties and farming practices and models, but also on pest and disease control.”

Mars cited the need for continuing innovation, such as the company’s work through the Mars Center for Cocoa Science in Bahia, Brazil. Opened in 1982, the center has evolved to include private-public plant science partnerships with researchers and governments around the world. The center helps lead Mars’ efforts in areas such cocoa breeding, farming best practices, and pest and disease research and management.

Nonetheless, Mars said action the industry has taken so far hasn’t been sufficient to move the needle on sustainable cocoa.

“My hope is that 10 years from now, I can reflect on our efforts, both individually, and collaboratively,” Mars said. “I hope that I can look in the mirror and say I am proud of what we have achieved together. And know that cocoa does in fact have a sustainable future. And it’s one that uses science and technology to put farmers first.”

–Candy Industry

https://www.candyindustry.com/articles/88175-mars-aims-to-triple-cocoa-yield-through-development-of-disease-resistant-cocoa

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Spray plane Air Tractor Air Tractor/Getty Images
Today’s modern ag aircraft employ precision guidance technology to insure accurate coverage of crop protection materials.

1943-2018: A 75-year evolution of crop protection in the Delta

Logan Hawkes 1 | May 02, 2018

“You’ve come a long way, baby!” — Slogan from a 1968 tobacco ad campaign

That catch-phrase that was part of a long ago very successful advertising campaign for cigarettes could be applicable to the evolution of crop protection in the Delta region, and beyond, since Delta Farm Press had its start in 1943.

“Agriculture has been a crucible of evolutionary change since its inception thousands of years ago, and this change permeates agricultural endeavors at all levels of biological organization, ranging from the individual gene to whole communities,” says an article published by The U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health.1

While it may be impossible to know the number of plant or pest species that have come and gone throughout Earth’s history, we are nonetheless aware of changes brought about by both natural and selective plant breeding processes over the last several thousand years. And we know a great deal more today about the insects and diseases that have competed for the commercial crops grown on farms.

By the time the 1940s arrived, and worsening global war between nations raged in other parts of the world, farmers tilling the rich soils of the Mississippi Delta were at war with weeds.

“All through history, it is clear that farmed crops would suffer from pests and diseases, causing a large loss in yield, with the ever-present possibility of famine for the population,” says a 2002 article on pest management.2 “Even today, with advances in agricultural sciences, losses due to pests and diseases range from 10 percent to 90 percent, with an average of 35 percent to 40 percent, for all potential food and fiber crops.”

Somewhere around 1942, Dr. J.E. Adams at the Delta Research Station at Stoneville, Miss., began using an invention known as The Flamer, a tractor-mounted blowtorch designed to burn weeds between the rows. Trials were promising, and for several years the machine became the primary tool for weed control.

In other parts of the nation, researchers had been working with inorganic substances, such as sodium chlorate and sulphuric acid, to control many pest problems. Organic chemicals derived from natural sources were widely used.

New pesticides were being tested, mostly byproducts of coal gas production or other industrial processes. Early organics such as nitrophenols, chlorophenols, creosote, and even petroleum oils were being tested, and in some cases, used for fungal outbreaks and to control plant bugs. For weed control, farmers depended on ammonium sulphate and sodium arsenate, but those products needed to be applied at high rates with a lack of selectivity and phytotoxicity.3

Following that, synthetic pesticides were being developed, including DDT, BHC, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, parathion, captan, and 2,4-D. These products were effective and inexpensive. DDT soon became the chemical of choice in the Delta because of its broad-spectrum activity. But researchers observed harm to other plants and even animals, and overuse also caused resistance buildups in some pests.

NEW FORMULATIONS

In the 1950s, new pesticides were formulated, and with little concern about health safety at the time, many were used effectively on some crops, with little if any opposition. But by the 1960s, there was increased environmental awareness and a growing concern for the safe use of chemicals in agriculture. Research continued, and soon began to look at health risks and challenges that ag chemicals might pose on the farm.

More advancements in pesticides occurred with the development of pyrethroids and the introduction of the triazole, morpholine, imidazole, pyrimidine, and dicarboxamide families of fungicides.4

Initial results were promising, until it was discovered that these single mode of action products made them more selective and vulnerable to resistance. By the 1990s, research was concentrated on finding new members of existing families that would offer greater selectivity and better environmental and toxicological profiles. Some of these products offered the added benefit of being applied at only grams per acre rather than kilograms.

GENETIC ENGINEERING

More recently, genetically engineered crops, designed to produce their own insecticidal traits or resistance to broad spectrum herbicide products or pests, have become the standard. But resistance has continued to be a problem, making the use of these traits challenging.

New integrated pest management strategies are helping to reduce the risk of pest pressures, but more needs to be done.

Farmers in the Delta and industrywide, have learned from the past. Now, thanks to steady research and development by the ag chemical industry, there are more tools in the farmer’s arsenal to fight weeds and pests.

At the same time, many farmers are turning back the clock and integrating some of yesterday’s effective products into today’s crop management systems.

The future for ag chemicals may be uncertain, but the one constant is that research to find more effective ways to protect crops continues at the highest levels at universities, independent laboratories, and agribusiness companies — all teaming up to discover the next great weed and pest management tools.

But despite the challenges, few in agriculture would argue that, over the last 75 years, we’ve come a long way, baby.

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WEMA maize shows promising resistance to destructive fall armyworm

Source: Ghana|Myjoyonline.com | Joseph Opoku-Gakpo | Joy News
Date: 26-04-2018 Time: 03:04:03:pm

Scientists have observed unexpected benefits in Mozambique’s Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) field trials that could well be a game changer in efforts to ensure Africa’s food security.

Though the maize varieties were genetically engineered to withstand drought and the vicious stem borer pest, they’re also showing promising resistance to the destructive fall armyworm pest, which arrived on the African continent in 2016 and continues its devastating advance.

Early results from Mozambique indicate the genetically modified WEMA seeds can offer significant protection against insect pests — without the use of pesticides.

This has positive implications for the other nations that are developing WEMA varieties, including Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia.

 In Mozambique, the WEMA seeds are being tested on a 2.5-hectare confined field trial site at Chokwe in the Gaza Province, some three hours’ drive from the capital Maputo.

Ordinary local maize varieties, which are conventional, and the WEMA seeds, which are transgenic (GM), were planted last year to provide comparisons, and the results have exceeded the expectation of scientists working on the project.

No pesticides or insecticides were applied at any point in time in the life cycle of any of the plants. Four weeks after sowing the seeds, scientists analyzed the level of infestation by fall armyworm and other pests in the maize fields.

 “The leaf damage is higher in the conventional material than the transgenic one,” Dr Pedro Fato, the plant breeder in charge of the WEMA project, told Joy news during a visit to the field trial site.

“Here we have a combination of insect pressure from stem borer and fall armyworm. There was more than 30 percent [difference] on yield between the conventional and the transgenic, which means WEMA protects about 30 percent of the yield. The WEMA material shows resistance to both insects,” he noted.

The results are important because maize is a major staple in Africa, consumed by more than 300 million people. But the stem borer is a major pest that destroys maize by eating through the plants, leaving them struggling to survive. In many countries, fall armyworm is proving to be equally destructive.

Currently, farmers try to control these pests through the use of pesticides. Farmers in Mozambique say they have to spend a lot of money on pesticides, and they fear using the products could endanger their health.

“When I plant maize, pests attack them. I use pesticides to stop them,” explained Armahdo Bule, 59-year old farmer. “I know that using the pesticides without personal protection could give me diseases. I know that using pesticides is not good because it could give you problems. But we still use them,” he added

The pests also greatly reduce crop yields. “Stem borer is a biotic stress that Mozambique is concerned about, especially in this [Chokwe] area where there is a lot of heat,” Fato said. “It occurs throughout the country and sometimes causes yield loss of more than 40 percent.”

Further compounding the problem of pest attacks is the worsening weather. “Drought is another big challenge we farmers have to deal with repeatedly,” said Tabusa Arije, president of the local farmers association.

“The way the climate is changing has brought a lot of problems. Last year, we planted beans in July, but we didn’t make anything because the rain didn’t come and the temperature was high,” he noted.

Officials managing irrigation services in the country are equally concerned, saying the drought problem has gotten worse recently and led farmers into debt situations.

“There was a bad drought in 2016 and there was no water in the irrigation canals,” said Soares Almeida Xerinda, board chairman of the government irrigation organization Hydraulics of Chokwe.

“The impact was very bad because the farmers lost the crops that they have… Some farmers work with the banks to get inputs including seeds and fertilizers but until now, they still face the consequence of the drought.”

To address the problem facing maize, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) launched the WEMA project, a public-private initiative that aims to produce conventional and genetically modified maize resistant to drought and pests.

The WEMA varieties are being developed through a collaboration between the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and government research institutions in six African nations using gene technology donated by Monsanto.

Since the resulting seeds are royalty-free, local seed companies can make them available to smallholder farmers at affordable prices.

“The project aims to develop and avail to farmers drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties using a range of approaches, including conventional plant breeding and genetic modification,” said Dr Denis Kyetere, AATF executive director.

“These varieties will improve yields under moderate drought and protect maize from insect-pest damage,” he said.

Conventional WEMA varieties already have been introduced onto the market in target countries, except Ethiopia, which is currently testing the conventional varieties and preparing for drought-tolerant and insect-resistant (Bt) genetically modified maize confined field trials.

In 2016, South Africa became the first project country to commercialize Bt maize for use by smallholder farmers. Mozambique hopes to release the WEMA maize as the country’s first genetically modified organism.

The scientists are excited to discover that the Bt WEMA maize is also showing partial, but significant resistance to the fall armyworm, which has already spread to almost 30 African countries, destroying maize and other crops.

The pests are especially destructive because they don’t respond easily to pesticide applications and reproduce very rapidly.

In Mozambique alone, between 282,000 and 712,000 tonnes of maize were lost to the fall armyworm last year, costing the country’s economy between $83.8 and $208.7 million.

According to a report by the United Kingdom-based Center for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) on the potential impact of the fall armyworm pests in Africa, which was commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Fato said the additional resistance to fall armyworm is good news for Mozambique’s agricultural sector, although that was not the intent of the research work.

“To control stem borer and fall armyworm, the farmers use a lot of insecticides and the cost of insecticide is higher particularly for the fall armyworm. So if you can produce maize that doesn’t need any protection in terms of insecticide, that will help the farmers a lot, in terms of yield.”

Farmers in the vicinity have already visited the WEMA fields and are excited about what they saw. “WEMA is providing solutions for problems and will increase productivity,” said Armahdo Bule.

“WEMA is welcoming because it will help us deal with diseases and drought,” said farm leader Tabusa Arije. “We are waiting eagerly to get the seeds.

“We are teaching ourselves about the seeds, how to apply pesticides and ensuring technology transfer with the hope that tomorrow, with WEMA varieties, things will be okay.”

This is the second — and perhaps last — of the confined field trials for insect resistance trait in Mozambique. Later this year, some of the varieties will be tested for their ability to withstand drought. Fato expects a smooth process that will eventually allow the WEMA varieties to enter the market and reach the farmers.

“In Mozambique, the regulation is in place,” he explained. “And that is why we certain we shall be able to plant these first transgenic materials. I hope that other crops will follow. The regulation is really conducive to GMO technology development.”

Soares Almeida Xerinda, the irrigation company official, agreed. “The WEMA variety will be a very important product because when you get involved in agriculture, you will always have a drought.

“Even if you have an irrigation system, you can always save water. Water is not in abundance. If you can save the water, you can use it for a long time including when you have a drought. The WEMA project is a good initiative.”

 

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WEMA Maize Shows Promising Resistance to Fall Armyworm in Mozambique

Early results from the field trials of Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) show that the genetically modified maize plants are protected against insect pests, even without the use of pesticides. This indicates that the GM maize varieties could help ensure Africa’s food security.

The GM maize varieties under field trials were engineered to withstand drought and stem borer attack. Moreover, results also showed that the GM maize varieties also exhibit promising resistance to fall armyworm, which is one of the major pest problems faced by many farmers in Africa today.

These initial results have positive implications not just for Mozambique, but also for other countries developing WEMA varieties such as Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

Read the article from Biosciences for Farming in Africa and My Joy Online for more information.

 

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Innovative control of fly that deposits eggs in fruit crops

Researchers develop first gene drive targeting worldwide crop pest

Biologists at the University of California San Diego have developed a method of manipulating the genes of an agricultural pest that has invaded much of the United States and caused millions of dollars in damage to high-value berry and other fruit crops.

Research led by Anna Buchman in the lab of Omar Akbari, a new UC San Diego insect genetics professor, describes the world’s first “gene drive” system—a mechanism for manipulating genetic inheritance—in Drosophila suzukii, a fruit fly commonly known as the spotted-wing drosophila.

As reported April 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Buchman and her colleagues developed a gene drive system termed Medea (named after the mythological Greek enchantress who killed her offspring) in which a synthetic “toxin” and a corresponding “antidote” function to dramatically influence inheritance rates with nearly perfect efficiency.

“We’ve designed a gene drive system that dramatically biases inheritance in these flies and can spread through their populations,” said Buchman. “It bypasses normal inheritance rules. It’s a new method for manipulating populations of these invasive pests, which don’t belong here in the first place.”

Native to Japan, the highly invasive fly was first found on the West Coast in 2008 and has now been reported in more than 40 states. The spotted wing drosophila uses a sharp organ known as an ovipositor to pierce ripening fruit and deposit eggs directly inside the crop, making it much more damaging than other drosophila flies that lay eggs only on top of decaying fruit. Drosophila suzukii has reportedly caused more than $39 million in revenue losses for the California raspberry industry alone and an estimated $700 million overall per year in the U.S.

In contained cage experiments of spotted wing drosophila using the synthetic Medea system, the researchers reported up to 100 percent effective inheritance bias in populations descending 19 generations.

“We envision, for example, replacing wild flies with flies that are alive but can’t lay eggs directly in blueberries,” said Buchman.

Applications for the new synthetic gene drive system could include spreading genetic elements that confer susceptibility to certain environmental factors, such as temperature. If a certain temperature is reached, for example, the genes within the modified spotted wing flies would trigger its death. Other species of fruit flies would not be impacted by this system.

“This is the first gene drive system in a major worldwide crop pest,” said Akbari, who recently moved his lab to UC San Diego from UC Riverside, where the research began. “Given that some strains demonstrated 100 percent non-Mendelian transmission ratios, far greater than the 50 percent expected for normal Mendelian transmission, this system could in the future be used to control populations of D. suzukii.”

Another possibility for the new gene drive system would be to enhance susceptibility to environmentally friendly insecticides already used in the agricultural industry.

“I think everybody wants access to quality fresh produce that’s not contaminated with anything and not treated with toxic pesticides, and so if we don’t deal with Drosophila suzukii, crop losses will continue and might lead to higher prices,” said Buchman. “So this gene drive system is a biologically friendly, environmentally friendly way to protect an important part of our food supply.”

Coauthors of the paper include John Marshall of UC Berkeley, Dennis Ostrovski of UC Riverside and Ting Yang of UC Riverside and now UC San Diego. The California Cherry Board supported the research through a grant.

Publication date: 4/18/2018

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SE farm press

Gene Drives: The New Tool for Pest Control?

Better Cotton Project Sind, Pakistan

In 2014, biological engineer Kevin Esvelt proposed a novel technique for genetically altering entire populations of problem species in the wild called gene drives. The implications of this methodology would be to genetically modify agricultural pests and invasive species so to almost entirely eradicate populations; with even potential uses for combating zoonotic disease spread such as malaria.

Gene drives are self-propagating genetic devices which contain genetic modifications. The concept is based on the idea of genetically modifying a set number of individuals of a given species, for example with genes resulting in infertility and releasing them into the wild. Within a few reproductive generations, the majority of the wild population would be infertile.

Although the hypothetical use of a genetic interaction process such as gene drives for pest control has been seriously considered for over a decade, its implementation was not straightforward. New gene-editing developments have changed this. Although there haven’t been any releases of gene drives yet, it may be a matter of time before several agricultural pests and natural enemies become potential candidates for carrying gene drives.

In the current climate, fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) would be an ideal target for study in this field. As fall armyworm is currently one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most invasive species, with it rapidly spreading across the continent since 2016 into over 10 countries. This insect feeds on over 80 plant species, including major agricultural crops such as maize, sugarcane and rice; with the larval stages being able to consume entire plants and devastate fields. Therefore, the potential to implement gene drives to hinder one of the developmental stages or render the insect infertile would provide a major release to the agricultural sector across Africa.

In terms of the bioethics of gene drives, the mutated animal isn’t injured or killed as a direct result of the gene drive, therefore it would be a more humane method of reducing the pest species population. Genetically induced mutations are passed from parent to offspring, only the target species would be affected, which isn’t the case with the use of traps, poisons and chemical treatments.

It is important to consider that current pest control practices are also not risk-free.

If you would like to read further into the concept of gene drives, please see the links below:

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