Archive for the ‘Biotechnology’ Category

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Research reveals mechanism making banana fungus less responsive to crop protection

An international team of scientists led by Wageningen University & Research has discovered a new genetic mechanism that makes the notorious Black Sigatoka fungus less sensitive to the main chemical crop protection products used against the disease.
The discovery shines light on this increasingly reduced sensitivity and underlines the importance of developing banana varieties resistant to the fungus which causes Black Sigatoka.
Pseudocerospora fijiensis, the fungus causing the dreaded Black Sigatoka disease in banana cultivation, is tackled with chemicals. In practice, this requires farmers around the world to spray against the disease between 35 and 70 times a year. One specific type of fungicides, the so-called demethylase inhibitors (DMIs), form the backbone for managing the disease. Unfortunately, the fungus is becoming increasingly less sensitive to these products on a global scale.
Dr Pablo Chong conducted his PhD research under the supervision of Gert Kema, professor in tropical phytopathology at Wageningen University & Research. The working hypothesis was that “we thought that the reduced sensitivity of the fungus was caused by changes in the protein, a demethylase enzyme, which is the target of the DMIs” Kema says.
“As a result we only looked at mutations in the segment of the gene that encodes the enzyme. What we found is that the reduced sensitivity is also caused by changes in the promoter, the switch that controls the gene. In the promoter we discovered a segment of DNA that is concatenated up to six times. The larger the number of DNA-repeats in the promoter, the less sensitive the fungus.”
The less sensitive Black Sigatoka strains that were found in banana cultivation and studied by the team all had a combination of mutations in the encoding part of the gene as well as DNA-repeats in the promoter.
Kema: “Mutations in the coding segment of the gene reduces the ‘docking’ of the compound in the enzyme, while the DNA repeats in the promoter make the gene extra active. These two factors together appear to ensure that the fungus has so much well-functioning enzyme in its cells that it is far less affected by the crop protection. As a result, the banana plants develop disease despite the application of these products.”
The findings emphasise the importance of smart crop protection, using not only DMIs but also fungicides that function in a completely differently way. This will slow the pace of reduced sensitivity in the fungus.
“The results of our research also underline the importance of developing Black Sigatoka resistant banana varieties” concludes Kema. “This is the only way to make global banana cultivation more sustainable.”
For more information:
Erik Toussaint
Wageningen University & Research 
Tel: +31 651 56 59 49

Publication date: 11/22/2017

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Minister points to IPM and innovation as post-Brexit priorities for agriculture

14th November 2017

Delegates at this year’s BCPC Congress heard first-hand what the key pillars of post-Brexit policy would be, when the Rt. Honourable George Eustice, Minister for Agriculture, opened proceedings. 

“Defra must do what is right for UK farming,” said Mr Eustice. “With companies reluctant to invest in new products because of the uncertainty about financial returns, there are likely to be fewer products and increasing problems with pesticide resistance. It is vital that we put Integrated Pest Management (IPM) at the heart of our strategy, use pesticides more carefully and look to improve crop husbandry and soil health with better crop rotations.”

“Genetic technology may be contentious, but the UK argues strongly for applying new genetic technologies in crop production. We need to support this and other more innovative approaches to supplement our chemical pesticides. By summer 2018, a White Paper will be introduced on a new Agricultural Bill, with R&D and innovation at the heart of the approach,” advised the Minister.

Among the many leading industry figures speaking at the event, Dr Jon Knight, AHDB pointed out that few farmers had adopted IPM and most relied on conventional pesticides to be profitable, but he supported the move to biologically based IPM alongside chemical pesticides. Resistance to pesticides was difficult to combat since the range of actives had reduced. The rising costs of bringing a new active to market, compounded by the regulatory uncertainties, was a disincentive to do R&D for European markets and Dr Knight highlighted the need for a less stringent interpretation of hazard-based policies and a move to risk-based assessment.

Other speakers also strongly criticised aspects of the EU hazard-based approach to agrochemical regulation; Dr John Doe, Parker Doe partnership, showed clearly how EU classification of carcinogenicity based on hazard identification is outmoded and fails to serve society’s needs. Prof Steve Bradbury, Iowa State University, reviewed the US EPA experience where science-based risk assessment, supported by legislation, had proved acceptable to the wide range of US stakeholders in food production, consumption and the environment.

Prof. Lin Field, Rothamsted Research, highlighted worldwide concerns about bee decline and how easy it was to blame insecticides for this, despite the many interacting factors such as Varroa mites, diseases, weather and bee food availability. She outlined the ways in which misleading research findings – and associated press releases – had been used to blame neonicotinoids when the evidence was not there. Dr Peter Campbell, Syngenta and Mike Coulson, Exponent also evidenced misinterpretations of the data leading to contradictory and damaging scientific, press and regulatory responses.

As Dr Colin Ruscoe, Chairman, BCPC explained, “This year’s Congress takes place at a time of unprecedented pressure by well-funded lobby groups, some seeking a ban of all agrochemicals – despite good scientific evidence and the negative impact of such action on food production and the environment. This is evidenced by the unprecedented campaign against glyphosate, the most important and arguably the most benign of our agrochemicals. We need to support our UK government agencies in steering a difficult course, often in the face of public opinion against agricultural technologies, fuelled by misuse of science by malevolent pressure groups.”

Day Two of the Congress offered that opportunity, with the inclusion of a CRD Workshop providing delegates with the chance to discuss how an effective UK pesticide regulatory scheme post-Brexit, fully integrated with Defra’s future strategy could be structured and benefit UK agriculture. This workshop stimulated many constructive inputs for Dave Bench (CRD) and Gabrielle Edwards (Defra) to take away to help shape future regulation.

“Our industry needs to take the initiative to drive radical change, based on new technology and innovation as part of IPM – including sensing, robotics, targeted application, “smart” formulations and biopesticides,” concluded Dr Ruscoe.

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The same Australian university that is trialing Vitamin A-enriched bananas in Uganda has successfully developed genetically modified Cavendish bananas with resistance to the deadly soil-borne fungus Panama Disease Tropical Race IV.

In their world-first GM field trial conducted in heavily TR4-infested soil, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researchers found one Cavendish line – transformed with a gene taken from a wild banana – was completely free of the disease.

In addition, three others from the six lines tested also showed showed robust resistance, which is very exciting according to project lead Professor James Dale from QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities.

The results have just been published in Nature Communications.

Click here for a feature article we published back in 2013 with Dr Dale discussing his vision for improved nutrition and disease resistance through GMO bananas.

The field trial ran from 2012 to 2015 on a commercial banana plantation outside Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory previously affected by TR4. The soil was also heavily reinfested with disease for the trial.

Professor Dale said the outcome was a major step towards protecting the US$12 billion Cavendish global export business, which is under serious threat from virulent TR4.

“These results are very exciting because it means we have a solution that can be used for controlling this disease,” he said.

“We have a Cavendish banana that is resistant to this fungus that could be deployed, after deregulation, for growing in soils that have been infested with TR4.







“TR4 can remain in the soil for more than 40 years and there is no effective chemical control for it. It is a huge problem. It has devastated Cavendish plantations in many parts of the world and it is spreading rapidly across Asia. “It is a very significant threat to commercial banana production worldwide.”

They will have the capacity to grow up to 9,000 plants and quantify crop yield over the five-year trial.

“The aim is to select the best Grand Nain line and the best Williams line to take through to commercial release,” Professor Dale said. “While in Australia we primarily grow Williams, in other parts of the world Grand Nain is very popular.”

Professor Dale said the correlation demonstrated between the RGA2 gene activity and TR4 resistance opened up new research. 

“We can’t make the assertion that the RGA2 gene is the gene responsible for the resistance in the original wild diploid banana, because in the modified Cavendish we significantly increased the gene’s expression –  the level of its activity – over its activity in the wild banana,” he said.

“But we’ve established a correlation, and we’ve found that the RGA2 gene occurs naturally in Cavendish – it just isn’t very active.

“We are aiming to find a way to switch that gene on in the Cavendish through gene editing. We’ve started that project. It is not easy, it’s a complex process that is a way off, with four or five years of lab work.

“We’re also looking at as many genes as possible in the wild banana and screening them to identify other resistance genes, not only for resistance to TR4 but to other diseases.”

Other key findings of the field trial:

  • Nine lines of Cavendish Grand Nain transformed with the nematode-derived Ced9 gene were also trialled, with one line remaining TR4-free for the three years
  • There was no difference in observed mature bunch size between the transgenic bananas and healthy control Cavendish

The article, Transgenic Cavendish bananas with resistance to Fusarium wilt tropical race 4, can be accessed here.



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The 22nd Meeting and Scientific Conference was held in Wad Medani, Sudan from 23 – 28 October 2017. There were about 250 participants from Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, DR Congo, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Benin, and the U.S.A. Prof. R. Muniappan, Director, IPM Innovation Lab represented IAPPS and presented a keynote address entitled, “Management of Invasive Mealybugs”.  Participants visited Gazira Scheme, about 800,000 hectares of canal-irrigated area where corn, sorghum, cotton, sugarcane and vegetables are grown.

The cotton mealybug, Phenacoccus solenopsis, previously causing severe damage and crop loss is currently under control by the fortuitously introduced parasitoid, Aenasius arizonensis. The cotton leafhopper, Jacobiasca lybica (=Empoasca lybica) has been causing hopper burn symptoms on the Bt cotton grown in this area.

AAIS scientists in cotton MG_4020

AAIS meeting participants visiting cotton production area in the Gazira Scheme, Sudan

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Via PestNet

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ICRISAT researchers make peanuts free of aflatoxin

R Prasad

Dual strategy involves inserting 2 alfalfa genes into the plants to boost immunity and gene silencing technique to prevent any toxin production

Researchers at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad have developed dual strategies to keep groundnuts almost free of aflatoxin — a toxin produced by the fungi Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus — contamination. While one strategy prevents groundnuts from being infected by the fungus thereby preventing the toxins from being produced, the other strategy prevents the fungus from producing the toxin even if groundnuts somehow get infected with the fungus.

Genetic engineering approaches were used for inserting two alfalfa genes into groundnut plants to enhance immunity against fungal infection and growth. Preventing aflatoxin production even in case of any infection was achieved through a plant-induced gene silencing technique.

While both strategies showed promising results, the ultimate goal is to combine the two traits into a single variety to offer double protection so that groundnuts do not accumulate any aflatoxin or the amount of toxin is well within permissible limits at or after harvest.

Combining the two traits

“It is a proof-of-concept study. We have individually tested each of the two mechanisms and it is a matter of using conventional plant breeding approaches to develop a variety that has both the traits in place,” says Kiran K. Sharma from ICRISAT.

The researchers plan to start field trials early next year. “It will take one-two years to breed the two traits into a single variety and another about three years to conduct biosafety trials followed by the development of regionally adapted groundnut varieties. So, if everything goes to plan and gets approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), farmers will have a groundnut variety that is near-immune to aflatoxin contamination in five to seven years,” says Dr. Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur from ICRISAT who led the team.

“We selected two specific genes from alfalfa and inserted them into groundnut plants to enhance the immunity against fungal infection and growth. Groundnuts showed very little fungal infection and negligible aflatoxin contamination,” says Dr. Bhatnagar-Mathur. “We choose alfalfa as it is a legume like groundnut.”

To further prevent toxin production even when groundnuts get infected with the fungus, the researchers designed two small RNA molecules that silence the fungal genes which produce aflatoxin.

“When the fungus and plant come in contact with each other the small RNA molecules from the plant enter the fungus and prevent it from producing aflatoxin,” says Mr. Sharma, who is the first author of the paper published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

About 40 hours after infection with Aspergillus, six lines with alfalfa genes showed less than 1 part per billion (ppb) of toxin and another five lines showed 1-4 ppb compared with over 3,000 ppb in groundnuts that did not have these genes. Similarly, six lines carrying the RNA molecules, the toxin present was less than 1 ppb and two other lines showed 1-4 ppb of toxin. “It is much lower than the Indian and U.S. safety limit of 20 ppb and meets even the stringent European safety limit of 4 ppb,” Dr. Bhatnagar-Mathur says.

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Crop Biotech Update (November 2, 2017)

See also: Biofuels Supplement ( October 25, 2017 issue)


Get the updated Pocket Ks from www.isaaa.org

Scientists from China Develop Rice that Can Grow in Seawater

Section: News from Around the World

Chinese scientists develop new rice varieties that can be planted in seawater, which can potentially provide food for 200 million people.

Scientists have long been working on rice that can grow in seawater, and finally commercially viable varieties are now being tested. Around 200 rice varieties are under testing near the Yellow Sea coastal city of Qingdao in Shandong province to see which ones perform best in salty conditions. Seawater is pumped into the fields, diluted, and then channelled into the rice paddies. The researchers projected that the rice varieties would produce 4.5 tons per hectare, but one variety already showed promising results by producing 9.3 tons per hectare.

“The test results greatly exceeded our expectations,” said Liu Shiping, one of the researchers and professor of agriculture at Yangzhou University.

Read more from the Genetic Literacy Project.

Scientists Develop Late Blight Resistant Potato

Section: News from Around the World

Technology has become the blight of the Irish potato famine pathogen. A research team led by Professor Jonathan Jones at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich Research Park has successfully modified a potato to resist the devastating disease ‘late blight’ by introducing a blight-resistant gene from a wild potato to the popular Maris Piper.

Blight is a serious problem globally, and was a significant contributor to the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. “The first year of the Maris Piper field trial has worked brilliantly”, said Professor Jones. “We’ve observed resistance to late blight in all the lines.

This new blight-resistant gene introduced to the Maris Piper offers the promise of furthering its crop strength, and even the possibility of avoiding the use of chemical fungicides in its cultivation altogether. Field trials at Norwich are continuing, and next year the team will begin to explore the genetic traits that can improve tuber quality. The team hopes to produce a crop that is less prone to bruise damage and help improve the quality and sustainability of potato crop in the UK.

For more details, read the news article at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council website.

Kenyan Stakeholders Prepare for Commercialization of Bt Cotton

Section: News from Around the World

Stakeholders in the cotton sub-sector in Kenya are eagerly awaiting the introduction of Bt cotton in the country. This was raised at a recent workshop to prepare officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries for the adoption of the GM crop. The workshop, also attended by representatives from Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives, was held in Embu, north-east of Nairobi on October 16-17, 2017 and aimed at developing skills and capacity for effective management of the GM crop.

Dr. Charles Waturu, the principal researcher for Bt cotton in Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), informed participants that the trials for Bollgard I® and Bollgard II® cotton were successfully completed about 10 years ago. According to Dr. Waturu, the trials showed that transgenic cotton effectively controlled the populations of African bollworm and had no significant effect on non-target pest species. “Growing Bt cotton will significantly reduce the amount of insecticides used by Kenyan farmers, from 12 to about three sprays per season, thus reducing the cost of production and increasing income from cotton farming,” he pointed out.

Anthony Muriithi, the head of Fibre Crops Directorate agreed that Bt cotton is the way to go for Kenya. He acknowledged that the introduction of GM crops will be a remedy to poor cotton yields recorded currently. “The country currently produces approximately 25,000 bales which is only 10.4% of her potential and once Bt cotton is commercialized, we will see an upsurge in cotton production,” he noted. Some participants were, however concerned that the country’s political dynamics could derail efforts to expedite the adoption of the crop. “Political leaders must show political goodwill and lead the course towards adoption and commercialization of Bt cotton,” a participant said.

ISAAA Senior Programme Officer Dr. Faith Nguthi trained the stakeholders on effective science communication to promote understanding of the Bt cotton technology. Dr. Nguthi emphasized that in order to enhance trust and facilitate uptake of GM technology, there is a need to develop messages that are credible. The workshop was organized by Fibre Crops Directorate in collaboration with ISAAA and the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB-Kenya).

For more information on the article reference mkarembu@isaaa.org.

Smallholder Farmers to Gain from Gene Editing Technology

Section: New Breeding Technologies

Gene editing technology, such as the use of CRISPR-Cas9, could revolutionize the development of high-yielding, drought-, disease- and pest-resistant, and quality plant seeds; with lesser time of development compared to current breeding methods. These were highlighted by a panel of expert scientists at the 2017 Borlaug Dialogue conference held on October 18-20, 2017 in Des Moines, Iowa.

According to Feng Zhang, the originator of the technology who is a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, CRISPR-Cas9 is almost as simple as editing a Microsoft Word document on a computer. To edit genes, the Cas9 protein is programmed to create an RNA search string, which can search and edit paired DNA to change a genome to get desired results in plants, Zheng explained. “There’s a lot of exciting opportunity to apply this technology in both human health and in agriculture,” he said.

Scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) also aim to use the breakthrough technology to help smallholder farmers in the developing world address food security, nutrition shortcomings and economic threats to their livelihoods caused by climate change, pests and disease. They acknowledge the potential of the technology to reduce the use of pesticides, and to boost nutrition through biofortification of crops.

“We want sustainable agriculture that provides food and nutrition security for all, while enabling biodiversity conservation,” said Kevin Pixley, who leads the Seeds of Discovery project and the Genetic Resources Program at CIMMYT. “CRISPR-Cas9 is an affordable technology that can help us close the technology gap between the resource rich and resource poor farmers of the world.” Gene-edited varieties could also lessen the risk of investing in fertilizers, grain storage or other technologies, thereby contributing to “double benefits” for smallholder farmers, Pixley stressed.

More more details, read the news release from CIMMYT.


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Australian developed GMO Banana to be tested in Philippines

Australian researchers are planning to conduct field trials in Mindanao, Philippines for a genetically engineered Cavendish banana that was developed to resist the highly destructive Fusarium wilt or Panama disease.
Colin Melvin, commercial services director of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia, said Mindanao, including Region 12, is an ideal site for the field testing being the center of banana production in the country.
“There is an opportunity for leadership for Mindanao, particularly for the region, that relies heavily on the banana industry,” Melvin said in an interview over TV Patrol Socsksargen.
A team from the QUT led by Dr. James Dale, the lead researcher on the transgenic banana, earlier visited the city to grace a regional banana congress.
Dale, director of QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, said they have been testing the Fuasarium wilt-resistant bananas in the last three years.
He said they had bred out a banana that is “something different from Cavendish” that is resistant to the disease.
The team also developed a breed of Cavendish banana that is highly resistant to Fusarium wilt, he said.
“We isolated a gene out of the 25,000 banana genes to develop a wild banana into Cavendish,” he said.
Dale said they have done field trials in Australia in the last three years in land or soil that were heavily-infested with Fusarium and the results have been promising.
He maintained that the genetically-modified bananas are very much safe for human consumption.
Fusarium wilt, now with tropical race 4 strain, is a soil borne fungus that attacks the roots of the banana plants and turns leaves into wilted yellow.
Its original strain, which first emerged in Panama, was highly destructive and  wiped out banana plantations.
The disease has infested banana plantations in parts of Mindanao, with around 15,500 hectares accounted in the Davao region.
Dr. Remedios Flamiano, a local banana grower, said the disease could eventually wipe out banana plantations in the region and even the entire country if it remained uncontrolled.
“We need to intervene now while the disease incidence is not yet extensive,” she said.
Region 12, which has more than 100 active banana growers, hosts about 32,800 hectares of banana plantations that produce around one million metric tons of banana annually.

Publication date: 11/3/2017

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