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Archive for the ‘Biotechnology’ Category

GM/Biotech Crops Report – August 2022

1st August 2022

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GM/Biotech Crops Monthly Report August 2022

More accurate gene editing

CRISPR-Cas9 editing can cause off target edits and cuts both strands of the DNA helix at once. Now a system related to CRISPR but cutting only one strand of the DNA promises new options and greater accuracy in the edits.
Full Story.

Boost to rice yields

Over-expression of a single gene in rice seems to shorten the time taken for the plant to mature, improve nitrogen efficiency and boost yields by up to 40%.
Full Story.

Improved efficiency in food production

Photosynthesis is not the only way to produce food. Capturing the sun’s energy via photo-voltaic cells and using this energy to power an electrolyser that converts water and CO2 into acetate which can be utilised by mushrooms, yeasts and algae can be more efficient than growing crops. It sounds like an ideal food production system for space stations but here on earth there may be more resistance to this production method.
Full Story

Pod-borer resistance in chickpea

Gram pod borers account for a yield loss of 40-50% in chickpeas grown in India but a successful gene modification is achieving significant reductions in larval feeding damage.
Full Story

Australia starts to evaluate GM sorghum

Queensland University has been granted a licence to conduct field evaluations of GM sorghum over the next 3 years but the crop will not (yet?) be used for human or animal feed.
Full Story

Photosynthesis in overdrive

The University of Wisconsin have identified one of the brakes on photosynthesis and switched it off. The modified Arabidopsis plants produce greater quantities of aromatic compounds and, in doing so, absorb greater quantities of CO2.
Full story

Optimising wheat production

A study by Rothamsted has indicated that, if the genetics of wheat crops were optimised for the regions that the crop was grown in, growers could double their yields. However, a recent ‘Countryfile’ programme on the BBC reported a similar yield benefit achieved by a Ukrainian farmer who swapped his Russian-made combine harvester for a John Deere! Perhaps more widespread access to optimised harvest machinery could also improve harvested yields.
Full Story

This is rocket-science

By engineering the genome of soil bacteria, scientists have caused them to produce polycyclopropanated fatty acids that are sufficiently energy dense to be used as biofuels for road, shipping, aviation and rocket fuel. Let’s hope they can scale up production soon.
Full Story

Cassava Mosaic disease resistance

Cassava is a root crop that can grow in dry conditions without applied fertiliser and is a staple of many in India and Africa. Mosaic disease causes significant yield losses and the natural resistance of some landraces is easily lost during propagation. Now the gene involved has been identified, progress can be made on a more durable resistance:
Full Story

Improved immunity

Many plant pathogens switch off the plant’s immune response before they attack and now a team of scientists from Germany, France and Switzerland have decoded the signals that the pathogen uses to achieve this. They have also developed chemicals that re-activate the plant’s immune system in the lab and now they need to evaluate it in the field.
Full Story

Chitin for leaf blight control in rice

Chitin can be used as an insecticide due to the physical damage that it can cause to insect cuticles but now Chinese scientists have bio-engineered chitosan-iron nanocomposites that seem to have efficacy against bacterial leaf blight in rice.
Full Story

Wheat stripe rust resistance

The Sainsbury Laboratory has identified the genes that stop wheat rust infecting barley and now that the genes involved are known, it will allow this resistance to be transferred to other varieties:
Full Story

Phosphate biosensor

Many plants rely on soil fungi to scavenge for their phosphorus and reward the fungi with carbon compounds when they deliver the phosphates. Now a team at Texas University has developed a biosensor that allows them to monitor this trade and by optimising he process, they hope to make phosphate use by plants more efficient.
Full Story

Asian soybean rust resistance

Corteva and the 2blades Foundation based at the Sainsbury Laboratory have developed a durable rust resistance for soybeans, important because the yield losses caused by the disease can range 10 – 80%.
Full Story

Reduced pre-harvest sprouting in rice

Scientists at the Nanjing Agricultural University have used CRISPR-Cas0 to knock out various versions of the CsABA8ox gene to increase seed dormancy in rice. This makes pre-harvest sprouting less likely but they do not say if it affects the germination of a seed crop.
Full Story

THE LATEST ADDITIONS TO THE  GM/BIOTECH DATABASE ARE:

The latest approvals of biotech crops to report this month:

• HB4 wheat with improved drought tolerance approved for food and feed use in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Columbia, New Zealand, Nigeria and the USA.

FOR INSTANT ACCESS TO GM BIOTECH MANUAL CLICK HERE (Registration required)

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NOVEMBER 16, 2022

Functions of transcription factors in maize resistance to insects and jasmonate signaling revealed

by Zhang Nannan, Chinese Academy of Sciences

corn
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Maize (Zea mays) is an important food, feed, and bioenergy crop that plays a pivotal strategic role in food security, while insect pests seriously affect the yield and quality of maize. Benzoxazinoids (BXDs) and volatile terpenes are insect-resistant defensive compounds in maize. BXDs are toxic to insects and they directly inhibit insect growth and development, and volatile terpenes attract the natural enemies of herbivorous insects.

Previous studies have shown that jasmonic acid (JA) treatment can promote the accumulation of BXDs and volatile terpenes in maize, but the underlying molecular mechanisms were unknown.

A research team led by Prof. Wu Jianqiang at the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (KIB/CAS) has elucidated the functions of maize MYC2s in JA-mediated insect defense response by means of genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and bioinformatics.

According to the researchers, compared with the wild-type maize plants, the maize mutants, in which MYC2s were knocked out, were highly susceptible to the insects Mythimna separata and Spodoptera frugiperda.

The maize MYC2s mutants also showed a feminized tassel phenotype. Thus, MYC2s regulate maize insect resistance and sex determination of tassels. The researchers further demonstrated that maize MYC2s positively regulate the biosynthesis of BXDs and volatile terpenes, and the RNA-Seq and CUT&Tag-Seq analyses also revealed the regulatory landscape of maize MYC2s.

Moreover, they identified seven transcription factors that are physically targeted by MYC2s and they are likely involved in regulating the biosynthesis of BXDs.

This study provides important new insight into the molecular mechanisms of insect resistance and JA signaling in maize.

This work was published in the Journal of Integrative Plant Biology entitled “ZmMYC2s play important roles in maize responses to simulated herbivory and jasmonate.”

More information: Canrong Ma et al, ZmMYC2s play important roles in maize responses to simulated herbivory and jasmonate, Journal of Integrative Plant Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1111/jipb.13404

Provided by Chinese Academy of Sciences 

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Africa’s Readiness for GMOs Amid Food Security Concerns

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International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)/Flickr

The far bowl on the right contains Golden Rice, an example of biofortification using genetic engineering. The golden color of the grains comes from the increased amounts of beta-carotene.

2 NOVEMBER 2022

The Exchange AfricaANALYSISBy James Ndwaru

With the realities of food security and a burgeoning population, there is an urgent need for a more realistic approach to the discussion on the adoption of GMOs in Africa.

  • Moving forward, Africa faces a significant food security dilemma.
  • Food production in Africa is expanding at a slower pace than population growth.
  • GMOs provide a means for Africa to obtain higher agricultural yields and shorter harvest times, ensuring greater food security.

Food security in Africa

Moving forward, Africa faces a significant food security dilemma. The United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) believes that 20 per cent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people face starvation. COVID-19 interruptions and the Russia-Ukraine crisis have exacerbated this situation.

Insecurity, violence, poverty, climate change, and population expansion represent significant factors in the continent’s food security concerns. Albeit substantial progress in the battle against malnutrition and food insecurity in Africa, the pace is too sluggish to reach the six primary nutrition objectives set by the World Health Assembly and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

READ MORE: GMOs ban lifting: the future of Kenya’s indigenous seeds

Food production and population growth

It is worth noting that food production in Africa is expanding at a slower pace than population growth. Except for Africa, per capita food production has increased in every other area of the globe during the 1970s. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is growing at a pace of roughly 3 per cent per year, which could easily treble the number of people in a single generation.

According to the UN, Nigeria’s population will exceed that of the United States by 2050, with Africa’s population expanding by 1.3 billion. This rapid population expansion challenges the continent’s already precarious food supply networks.

More significantly, Africa’s population is mainly composed of a younger generation. Two-fifths of Africans are between the ages of 0-14 years, with one-fifth between the ages of 15-24. Adequate food and nutrition play an essential role in the overall development of such a population.

More worrying is Africa’s exponential population growth rate, exhibiting the burden on agricultural farmlands, requiring technologies such as genetic engineering and biotechnology that can provide higher agricultural yields on limited agricultural lands, coupled with significant reductions in pesticide use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and lower exposure to climate variations.

Biotechnological studies on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) offer various options for solving the continent’s hunger, malnutrition, and food security challenges.

However, the adoption and acceptance of GMOs in Africa have been surprisingly delayed, perhaps owing to differing perspectives on their advantages and safety issues. With the realities of food insecurity and Africa’s burgeoning population, there is an urgent need for a more realistic approach to this discussion.

A case for GMOs in Africa

The GMO market (i.e., the commercial value of GM goods and services, including GM seed sales, GM commodity imports, etc.) in Africa was predicted to be worth $615.4 million in 2018, with a projected 5% increase to $871 million by 2025.

GMOs, with the correct strategy and framework, might help Africa tackle food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger. Food spoilage and loss caused by pests and pathogenic microbes pose a significant threat to food security and safety in Africa.

Food loss decreases revenue by at least 15 per cent in developing economies. Pest infestation on crops before harvest decreases the value of the harvests and the volume and market quality of such items.

Biotechnology advancements

Biotechnological advancements produce food crops more resistant to harm from several common food crop diseases and spoiling agents, lowering the need for costly and sometimes non-environmentally friendly chemical insecticides and pesticides.

Drought, heavy rainfall, and other environmental conditions substantially impact African agricultural production. Biotechnology provides a path for developing environmentally robust and climate-resistant crops that will help to safeguard Africa’s food basket.

Experts have extensively researched developing GM crops with faster maturity periods and higher quality. As a result, GMOs provide a means for Africa to obtain higher agricultural yields and shorter harvest times, ensuring greater food security.

Safety concerns are the main focus of the GMO debate and the primary reason for many African governments’ reluctance to embrace and deploy GMOs. Many African governments have stalled the adoption of biotech agriculture technologies due to perceived hazards that are sometimes unwarranted. Nonetheless, extensive evaluations and safety checks conducted under national and international biosafety frameworks ensure biotechnology safety.

There is no proof that GMO crops cause illness or death in people or animals anywhere in the world. GMOs represent the safest foods ever produced because experts thoroughly test them before making them accessible to the public. Improper food handling may result in sickness. Thus food safety requirements should always be observed.

GMOs in Africa

Globally, GMOs contribute to food security by increasing crop yield, quality and shelf-life. The commercialization and adoption of GMOs in many developed countries raised hope of improving food security and livelihood. Africa, a developing continent facing malnutrition, food crises and inadequate food production technologies, has been slow to accept GMOs.

GMOs have great potential for achieving the zero-hunger agenda. However, the hesitancy to accept GMOs in Africa emanates from unfavourable policies shaped by public opinion. Impeding factors hampering the adoption of GM technology necessitate biosecurity regulations on GMOs to monitor crop biosafety and environmental and health concerns.

With the current food security crisis in the continent, a proper debate on the place of GMOs is long overdue. Kenya has kickstarted the discussion by lifting a GMO ban for over ten years. However, inefficient communication, the lack of scientific evidence for health-related issues, and the dividends of modern biotechnology have resulted in protests and public concerns over GMOs.Close

Deliberations on GMOs

An unbiased deliberation must get underway on the adoption and roll-out of GMOs in Africa. Efforts to improve the adoption of GMOs in Africa should include the provision of adequate monitoring and surveillance system, science-based policies, political will and robust public education on and awareness of GM technology.

Farmers in Africa are anticipated to embrace biotech crops as biotechnology knowledge grows, possibly benefiting their families and the continent. Of course, adopting GMOs in Africa is about more than just information and awareness.

Time is running out for Africa to guarantee food security for its population. As the saying goes, it is not very reasonable to keep doing the same things and expect different results.

Africa needs crops that can withstand pests and disease, withstand drought, flourish without excessive pesticides and fertilizers, and produce healthy food. Africa needs crops to enable smallholder farmers to prosper. GMOs provide a powerful instrument for Africa to address these demands when other choices fail over time.

READ MORE: Kenya becomes the fifth country to allow GMOs. Will it last?

Read the original article on The Exchange.

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Philippines second country to approve genetically modified eggplant

The Philippines becomes the second country after Bangladesh to approve the commercial cultivation of genetically modified eggplant. 

The Bt eggplant, first developed in India, contains a natural protein from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), making it resistant to the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB), the most devastating insect pest for this crop.

The Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquitic and Natural Resources and Development, stated that the Bt protein is safe for humans and animals because it is highly specific to the shoot borer larvae. 

Although developed in India, the Bt eggplant is banned in that country.

Soruce: www.fareasternagriculture.com

Publication date: Thu 10 Nov 2022

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  3.  HTBt cotton and GM mustard set to get GEAC approval; first for any GM crop in 20 years

HTBt cotton and GM mustard set to get GEAC approval; first for any GM crop in 20 years

The commercial cultivation of GM crops may get approval in the country after 20 years. These crops are HTBt cotton and GM mustard. According to highly placed sources, the road to approval of commercial cultivation of these two crops has almost been cleared. The mere formality of approval from the GEAC remains. As per the information obtained by Rural Voice, the sub-committee appointed by GEAC has submitted its report to the latter. Positive recommendations have been made in this report for the commercial cultivation of HTBt cotton and GM mustard.

Harvir SinghHarvir Singh

Published:Oct 17, 2022 – 08:46Updated: Oct 22, 2022 – 12:53

HTBt cotton and GM mustard set to get GEAC approval; first for any GM crop in 20 years

Mustard fields in the Sambhal district of UP

The commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops may get approval in the country after 20 years. These crops are herbicide-tolerant (HT) Bt cotton, called HTBt cotton, and GM mustard. According to highly placed sources, the road to approval of commercial cultivation of these two crops has almost been cleared. The mere formality of approval from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) remains. As per the information obtained by Rural Voice, the sub-committee appointed by GEAC has submitted its report to the latter. Positive recommendations have been made in this report for the commercial cultivation of HTBt cotton and GM mustard.

Earlier, it was in 2002 that Bt cotton, a GM variety of cotton, was approved for commercial cultivation for the first time. Since then, no GM crop has been given approval for commercial cultivation. The Bt cotton varieties had been developed by the American company Monsanto and the Indian company Mahyco, in which the technology was Monsanto’s.

According to the said source, the GEAC-appointed sub-committee had been asked to study the adverse effects of the HTBt cotton variety and give its recommendations. Since it did not receive any such evidence with regard to HTBt cotton, it has given a positive report for approval to the variety. One of the members of the committee says that the cultivation of HTBt cotton has already been going on illegally in the country in about 30 per cent of the area. Seeds are being supplied for the same illegally. Given this, it would be better if it is given approval so that farmers may get seeds of the right quality and seed sellers may be held accountable in case of any defect.

Approval likely for GM mustard also

The other crop likely to get GEAC approval is GM mustard. Mustard plays a key role in the supply of edible oils in the country. But we have constantly failed on the front of increasing mustard productivity. Scientists argue for this that the solution lies in giving approval to the cultivation of GM mustard. Dr Deepak Pental, the ex-Vice Chancellor of the University of Delhi, had developed Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, otherwise known as DMH-11, a genetically modified hybrid variety of mustard. Its commercial release is yet to get approval. It is in favour of approval to the commercial release of this variety that the sub-committee has given its recommendations.

Dr Pental created DMH-11 through transgenic technology, primarily involving the Bar, Barnase and Barstar gene system. The Barnase gene confers male sterility, while the Barstar gene restores DMH-11’s ability to produce fertile seeds. The process also involves the insertion of a third gene called Bar. A patent had been obtained for this GM event in the US in 1991. Dr Pental has “tweaked” the process and he, too, has obtained its patent from the US. The Varuna species of mustard has been used for this GM variety.

What is interesting is that DMH-11, the GM mustard variety based on Dr Pental’s Barnase-Barstar technology, had even been given approval in the 133rd GEAC meeting. Immediately later, however, the approval was stayed in its 134th meeting.

A senior agricultural scientist says that canola varieties based on the Barnase-Barstar system are being cultivated on a large scale in Canada. Hybrid canola varieties are being cultivated on 21mn acres in Canada. The ill-effects of GM mustard on bees have been said to be at the root of the fear of its adverse effects. The said apprehension was that a reduction in the number of bees due to this will lead to a loss in the natural pollination process, which in turn will have an adverse effect on agricultural production. In Canada, however, there has been a far greater increase in the number of bee colonies in spite of the increase in the area under canola cultivation. According to a report, while the area under canola cultivation has increased from 10mn acres in 1988 to 21mn acres in 2019, the number of bee colonies has gone up from a level of about 10mn to 25mn during the same period.

One of the members of the sub-committee told Rural Voice that better-quality hybrid varieties were necessary to increase mustard production. The hybrid varieties of several private companies are selling in the market. But a high level of productivity can be attained only with the approval of the GM variety. India is not able to come out of the cycle of import dependence in the case of edible oils. In such a situation, subsequent to the approval given to GM mustard, its better GM varieties can bring about a steep hike in oil production. This is what happened in the case of cotton. GM cotton put an end to import dependence and enabled India to become a large cotton exporter, too.

Prof. KC Bansal, Secretary of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) and former Director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), said to Rural Voice, “Barnase–Barstar is a proven GM technology for hybrid development in mustard. We must promote this technology and the resultant GM mustard hybrid for the benefit of farmers, consumers and the nation for reducing our dependence on oil imports. Further, the transgenic mustard parental lines developed using Barnase and Barstar genes will prove useful for transferring these genes into more diverse parental lines for developing more hybrids with higher yields.”

As far as the issue of GM crops is concerned, it has been a controversial one. A large section has always stood in its opposition. After the approval given to the commercial cultivation of GM Bt cotton in 2002, Bt brinjal was another GM crop to have been given GEAC approval in 2009. It had been developed by the private seed company Mahyco in collaboration with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad; Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore; and ICAR-Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR), Varanasi. But the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) imposed a 10-year moratorium on its commercial cultivation that continues to this day. The Agriculture Minister has conveyed to the Parliament that field trials of the Bt brinjal variety developed at the domestic level have been approved for the 2022-23 season. But the condition of obtaining a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the respective state government has been imposed for this.

The government had given approval in March to develop new varieties through the SDN-1 and -2 categories of genome-edited plants. Guidelines for this were issued in May and the SOP, too, was issued in this regard in September. These moves from the government send the signal that it is changing its stance on the subject of approval for GM crop varieties. If the commercial release of the HTBt cotton and GM mustard is shown the green flag, it will be for the first time in the country in 20 years that a GM crop gets approval for commercial cultivation.

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Alliance for Science

Disease-resistant GM cassava promises to be game-changer for Kenya

BY JOSEPH MAINA

AUGUST 15, 2022

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At the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) center in Mtwapa, Kenya, scientist Paul Kuria uproots two sets of cassava tubers exposed to the devastating cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

One of the plants is a conventional cassava variety that has no immunity to the disease. The second has been genetically modified (GM) to resist the disease. Kuria punctiliously slices each of the tubers open, and the difference between the two is stark — like night and day.

The conventional tuber looks emaciated and is punctured with brownish, unsavory spots dotting the entire circumference of its flesh. The GM tuber, on the other hand, is the picture of good health. Its skin is flawless and firm, and its flesh has an impeccable, white lustre.

CBSD is considered one of the world’s most dangerous plant diseases due to its significant impact on food and economic security. Cassava varieties that are resistant to the disease could considerably improve the crop’s ability to feed Africa while generating income for smallholder farmers.

In severe cases, the disease can lead to 100 percent yield loss. As noted by KALRO and its partners, cassava resistant to CBSD is in high demand by farmers where the crop is grown.

Meeting that demand has been an elusive target for plant breeders. But through modern biotechnology, a collaborative effort known as the VIRCA project has developed CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046. It has the potential to prevent 90 percent of crop damage, thus improving the yield and marketability of cassava roots.

“We used genetic engineering and produced an improved cassava,” Professor Douglas Miano, the lead scientist in the project, told journalists and farmers who toured the KALRO grounds in Mtwapa in early August.

“It’s the first GM cassava in the world, and Kenya is leading in this production,” Miano said.

The VIRCA (Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa) project was conceived in 2005 with the aim of solving the viral diseases that suppress cassava yields and reduce farmer incomes in East Africa. It brings together KALRO, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre (DDPSC) in the United States.

“We have two main diseases affecting cassava production — CBSD and cassava mosaic disease,” Miano explained. “Cassava mosaic disease affects the leaves of the crop. The net effect is a reduction in the amount of cassava that is produced. CBSD, on the other hand, destroys the roots and affects the tuber.”

Scientists Paul Kuria displays GM disease-resistant cassava (left) vs cassava infected with CBSD. Photo: Joseph Maina

Dr. Catherine Taracha, a Kenyan who is on the project’s leadership team, said that plant viruses create a huge challenge for farmers.

“Cassava productivity is significantly hampered by viral diseases, and so we sought to develop a cassava line that would resist the viruses and thereby improve farmers’ livelihoods by boosting productivity and earnings from the crop,” Taracha said.

Because the line is yet to be approved for commercial release, the work is being carried out in regulated confined field trial conditions. If and when Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority approves line 4046 for the market, the new CBSD-resistant varieties would undergo normal government variety assessment and registration by regulators before being distributed to farmers.

The scientists further assure that CBSD-resistant cassava varieties are no different than their conventional equivalents — aside from their ability to resist CBSD.

“Due to the ability to resist CBSD, these varieties will be more productive with better quantity and quality of root yields,” Miano said.. “This will translate to greater demand and more profits for farmers.”

In addition, CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046 will produce disease-free planting material and thereby contribute to long-term sustainability of the cassava crop.

There will be no technology fee associated with line 4046, scientists say, implying that cassava stakes and cuttings will cost about the same as other highly valued cassava varieties.

Cuttings from CBSD-resistant cassava can be replanted in the same way farmers replant conventional cassava. They can also be grown with other crops because cultivation practices are the same as for conventional varieties.

The developers have further assured that CBSD-resistant cassava line is safe for the environment and biodiversity.

“We have developed the GM cassava up to the point where we have conducted all the safety studies and demonstrated that it is safe as food, feed and to the environment,” Miano said.

The general public and key stakeholders have been involved in the project, and it is anticipated that farmers and communities will be involved in selecting the best CBSD-resistant cassava varieties for their needs.

Cassava roots and leaves are the nutritionally valuable parts of the plant. The tuber is rich in gluten-free carbohydrates while the leaves provide vitamins A and C, minerals and protein. In addition to its nourishing properties, stakeholders have also identified cassava’s potential to spur Kenya’s industrial growth.

“Cassava is an important food crop, but we can also use it to industrialize in Kenya,” Miano asserted. “However, we have not yet been able to achieve this as a country.”

Miano identified starch as a potential cassava product that the country can leverage to advance its industrial growth. It is also projected that the improved cassava can protect farmers from devastating losses of this important food crop and contribute to the creation of thousands of jobs along the value chain due to the crop’s use as animal feed.

The scientists note that modern biotechnology is by far the best option to incorporate CBSD resistance in cassava cultivars carrying farmer-preferred characteristics. Similar approaches have been used to confer resistance to plant viruses and have been authorized by regulatory bodies around the world, including virus-resistant pawpaw, squash and beans.

Image: Scientist Paul Kuria displays cassava infected with cassava brown streak disease (left) and a GM variety that resists the devastating disease. Photo: Joseph Maina


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Researchers identify genes potentially responsible for sugarcane’s resistance to pests, cold and drought

by Ricardo Muniz, FAPESP

Researchers identify genes potentially responsible for sugarcane's resistance to pests, cold and drought
Researchers identify genes potentially responsible for sugarcane’s resistance to pests, cold and drought. Credit: Luciana Rossini/IAC, Sugarcane Center, Ribeirão Preto

A study conducted at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil has identified orphan genes in wild sugarcane (Saccharum spontaneum), a species with exceptional resistance to biotic stresses such as nematodes, fungi, bacteria and other pests and diseases, and abiotic stresses such as cold, drought, salinity and nutritionally deficient soil.

According to an article on the study published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, the scientists responsible had set out to see if the orphan genes in S. spontaneum played a significant role in its stress resistance properties.

All living beings have genes that closely resemble those of other organisms’ genomes. Plants, for example, share the genes involved in photosynthesis. On the other hand, most organisms also have orphan or lineage-specific genes.

Orphan genes are found in a particular taxonomic group with no significant sequence similarity to genes from other lineages. They are sometimes called taxonomically restricted genes for this reason.

Birds, for example, have some genes that differ a great deal from those of mammals. Recent research has shown that even organisms in closely related species belonging to the same genus can have genes not shared by other species.

The researchers were interested in S. spontaneum because of characteristics such as past whole-genome duplication events that resulted in several copies of the same gene. Scientific evidence suggests orphan genes can originate in copies of pre-existing genes whose sequences change over time owing to mutations and eventually differ entirely from the original sequences.

Another possible explanation for the origin of orphan genes could be reorganization of genomic regions that do not encode genes, frequently seen in organisms with complex genomes, such as sugarcane.

“In the study, we identified parts of the genome of S. spontaneum that have no similarities to genes in any other organism. We believe they may be responsible for physiological traits or properties peculiar to the species,” said Cláudio Benício Cardoso-Silva, first author of the article. He conducted the project as postdoctoral research at UNICAMP’s Center for Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering (CBMEG).

“As these plants evolved, some genes were expressed to a greater or lesser extent in response to various types of abiotic stress, particularly cold. This may mean they’re regulated as a result of these stresses,” said Cardoso-Silva, whose postdoctoral research was supervised by Anete Pereira de Souza, professor of plant genetics at UNICAMP’s Institute of Biology and last author of the article.

The researchers do not believe they can categorically conclude that the orphan genes they identified make the plant more stress-tolerant based on the results of the study. “But the fact that they’re regulated under conditions of stress serves as an alert to the possibility that they may play an important role in these processes,” he said.

The next step will be to experiment on plants submitted to various kinds of stress in order to investigate how orphan genes behave in terms of expression, compared to non-stressed plants. Once the best candidate genes are confirmed, biotech applications involving their insertion into commercially valuable plants can be studied, leading in future to the possibility of developing sugarcane varieties more resistant to environmental pressures.

“We shone a spotlight on this possibility for anyone who wants to use the data in the article to continue the research, or for scientists who work with gene transformation and editing, which is a different research field, to choose one or two genes as candidates and do the validation,” said Cardoso-Silva, who continues to work with genomics at the State University of Northern Rio de Janeiro (UENF). “My current research focuses on the evolutionary aspect of gene family expansion,” he explained.

“Today we have CRISPR [the gene editing technique], which offers biotech professionals a chance to select genes for tolerance of drought, salinity, cold or heat at a time when crop resilience with fewer inputs is paramount,” Souza said.


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Better seeds and biotechnology can, study finds

Joseph Maina | Cornell Alliance for Science | August 23, 2022

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Planting crops that are drought resistant could enable farmers to use less water and fertilizer. Credit: A. Ouoba via FAO
Planting crops that are drought resistant could enable farmers to use less water and fertilizer. Credit: A. Ouoba via FAO

Though Africa has a quarter of the world’s arable land, its crop productivity falls well below the world average, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Much of that is due to poor quality seeds and constraints facing smallholder farmers, according to a new study that suggests crop biotechnology as a way to boost production and productivity among Africa’s smallholders.

A woman sorts soybeans at the Jinja market in Uganda. Credit: The Road Provides via Shutterstock

Resource-stricken, fated to eke a living from diminutive landholdings and deprived of the rudiments of modern farming, smallholders face a menacing retinue of setbacks in their quest to feed the continent’s ballooning population.

Additionally, they often endure hunger, since SSA’s population is the most food-insecure on the continent, the study finds.

“Smallholder farmers have limited capacity to invest in their farms and are dependent on low level technologies,” said lead author Endale Gebre Kedisso, a research assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Michigan. “They suffer from limited access and use of inputs such as improved seed, fertilizer, and pesticides, as well as soil and water management operations to optimize yields.”

Around 80 percent of farms in SSA are smallholdings, according to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The agricultural sector employs around 175 million people, with women constituting between 60-80 percent of the workforce.

Credit: Twitter

“In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), most smallholders own less than two hectares of cultivable land and are challenged by the low productivity and production constraints in the middle of the unprecedented rising need for more food, feed, and raw material for industry,” notes the study.

Lack of good quality seed is a particularly serious setback to agricultural productivity in Africa, Kedisso said.

“Most crop seeds come from previous year harvest and are reused,” he explained. “They are highly genetically deteriorated seed in most cases obtained from local market or neighboring farmers and relatives. Poor seeds are not responsive to inputs. The seed system is either very poor or non-existent. Productivity levels are therefore too low in most Sub-Saharan African countries by world standards.”

Credit: McKinsey

Many of Africa’s agricultural problems can be overcome by using improved conventional technologies, Kedisso told the Alliance for Science. But he decried the fact that few farmers use conventional hybrid varieties even in Africa’s most researched crops, including maize, sweet potatoes, sorghum and other improved local seeds.

Against this backdrop, the productivity of crop farming in Africa is hugely challenged by biotic and abiotic stresses. Biotic stresses include those caused by insect pests, diseases, and weeds as well as the innate low-yielding potential of varieties. Abiotic stresses are caused by soil-related and climatic problems that include moisture stress and drought.

Agricultural biotechnology offers enormous opportunities to drive innovative solutions highly relevant to the needs of Africa’s smallholder farmers, the study notes.

“Studies show the major reasons for farmers to select biotech (GM) crops is the boost in yield,” he said. “In a study of over 147 agronomical studies, crop yields rose by 22 percent and the expense for pesticides declined by 39 percent. There are also non-monetary benefits such as time savings, ease of use and more flexibility in their planning.”

Yield trends of cereal production in different regions of the world. The U.S. yield has been booming while Africa has been lagging. Credit: InTechOpen using FAO data

The use of Bt crops for insect resistance is especially beneficial because they reduce insecticide use by up to 41.7 percent, which positively contributes to human and environmental health, he said.

Rapid advancements in modern biotechnology offer promising alternatives to the conventional approaches of crop improvement, the study notes. It complements the conventional plant breeding effort and makes it more efficient through precise identification and introgression of genes in a much shorter time period.

Sadly, Africa’s smallholder farmers have generally missed out on the potential benefits of modern biotechnology, which can be applied to improve their productivity and, in the process, improve livelihoods, according to Kedisso

However, the authors caution that no particular crop variety or technology will solve all the problems afflicting the continent’s farmers. Rather, they root for an organized, holistic approach by countries to solve agricultural problems in efforts to change the livelihoods of their farmers, with biotechnology playing a role.

And for smallholder farmers to fully reap the benefits of such technologies, Kedisso said there needs to be support by an organized system that includes a seed system and other regulatory supports. He said farmers can make better use of improved technologies with an improved institutional support system.

Dr. Joseph Maina is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Macquarie University. Joseph’s ultimate goals are to understand and predict the impacts of environmental variability and change on social and ecological systems at local and global scales to support spatial planning & management.

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and is reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly

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CRISPR is on the cusp of revolutionizing food and farming. Here is a global regulatory primer

Kyle DiamantasOlga BezzubovaPatricia Campbell | JD Supra | August 26, 2022

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Credit: Varsity
Credit: Varsity

The ability to edit eukaryotic DNA entails an almost limitless ability to alter the genetic makeup of the plants that become our food. Recently, scientific attention has been directed to applying a class of new gene-editing techniques that utilize CRISPR to food crops for the introduction of commercially desirable traits. Gene-edited crops can have a positive impact on food productivity, quality, and environmental sustainability, and CRISPR is unique in its relative simplicity, robust flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and wide scope of use.

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In general, the EU subjects agricultural products edited with CRISPR technology to the full suite of genetically modified organism (“GMO”) premarket approval, safety, and labeling requirements.

In contrast to the EU approach, the United States does not currently regulate CRISPR-edited agricultural products as GMOs. The United States regulates biotechnology and genetic modification in food through a “Coordinated Framework” between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), and Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”).

The regulation of CRISPR-edited agriculture is continuing to develop across the world, with notably different approaches and outcomes. While the European Union expressly considers CRISPR-edited agriculture to be “genetically modified” and subject to associated regulations, the United States generally does not currently consider CRISPR-edited agriculture to be “genetically modified.”

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omeCropsCotton Cotton gene-editing project aims to make plant more insect resistant

Cotton gene-editing project aims to make plant more insect resistant

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Texas A&M AgriLife, USDA and Cotton Incorporated collaborate on the research project.

Farm Press Staff | Aug 24, 2022

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Scieintists in the Texas A&M Department of Entomology have received a matching grant of almost $150,000 to conduct a three-year project to research novel pest management tools for cotton production. If successful, the project, Modifying Terpene Biosynthesis in Cotton to Enhance Insect Resistance Using a Transgene-free CRISPR/CAS9 Approach, could provide positive cost-benefit results that ripple through the economy and environment.

The project goal is to silence genes in cotton that produce monoterpenes, chemicals that produce an odor pest insects home in on, said Greg Sword, Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist, Regents professor and Charles R. Parencia Endowed chair in the Department of Entomology. By removing odors that pests associate with a good place to feed and reproduce, scientists believe they can reduce infestations, which will in turn reduce pesticide use and improve profitability.

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Research to improve a plant’s ability to tolerate or resist pest insects and diseases via breeding programs is nothing new, Sword said. But editing genomes in plants and pest insects is a relatively new and rapidly advancing methodology.

swfp-shelley-huguley-sam-stanley-cotton-drip-22.jpgA gene-editing project aims to expose and exploit simple but key ecological interactions between plants and insects that could help protect the plant. This is Sam Stanley’s 2022 drip-irrigated cotton near Levelland, Texas. (Photo by Shelley E. Huguley)

Sequencing genomes of interest and using the gene-editing tool CRISPR have become increasingly viable ways to identify and influence plant or animal characteristics. 

However, using gene-editing technology to remove a characteristic to make plants more resistant to pests is novel, Sword said. The research could be the genesis for a giant leap in new methodologies designed to protect plants from insects and other threats. 

Sword’s gene-editing project aims to expose and exploit simple but key ecological interactions between plants and insects that could help protect the plant.

“Insects are perpetually evolving resistance to whatever we throw at them,” Sword said. “So, it’s important that our tools continue to evolve.”

The matching grant is from both the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, NIFA, and the Cotton Board, a commodity group that represents thousands of growers across Texas and the U.S. The grant totals $294,000.

Critical seed funding 

Sword is collaborating with Anjel Helms, chemical ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Entomology; Michael Thomson, AgriLife Research geneticist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and the Crop Genome Editing Laboratory; and graduate student Mason Clark.

This research team is working on a project that was “seeded” by Cotton Incorporated, the industry’s not-for-profit company that supports research, marketing and promotion of cotton and cotton products.

The seed money allowed the AgriLife Research team to create a graduate position for Clark and produce preliminary data that laid the foundation for the NIFA grant proposal, Sword said. In addition, the terpene research is part of larger and parallel projects that began with direct support from Cotton Incorporated.    

“Cotton Incorporated’s support has been absolutely critical to jumpstart the project from the beginning,” he said. “From a scientific standpoint, industry support and collaboration are vital to project success, whether that’s leveraging money for research or identifying, focusing on and solving a problem, which actually helps producers.”

Industry collaborations strengthen the impact

Texas cotton production represents a $2.4 billion contribution to the state’s gross domestic product. From 2019 to 2021, Texas cotton producers averaged 6.2 million bales of cotton on 4.6 million harvested acres, generating $2.1 billion in production value. The Texas cotton industry supports more than 40,000 jobs statewide and $1.55 billion in annual labor income.

Research like Sword’s is augmented and sometimes directly funded by commodity groups representing producers and related industries.

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Projects supported by the Cotton Board and Cotton Incorporated run the gamut of production, including reducing plant water demands, increasing pest and disease resistance, and improving seed and fiber quality. (Photo by Shelley E. Huguley)

Jeffrey W. Savell, vice chancellor and dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences, said collaborative projects help research dollars make the greatest impact for producers. Texas A&M AgriLife’s relationships with commodity groups that represent producers can jumpstart groundbreaking work and help established programs maintain forward momentum.

“Cotton Incorporated is one of our long-time partners, and that collaboration has made an enormous impact on individuals, farming operations, communities and the state,” Savell said. “This project is just one example of how we can do more by engaging with the producers we serve.”

The Cotton Board’s research investment

Bill Gillon, president and CEO of the Cotton Board, said projects supported by the Cotton Board and Cotton Incorporated have run the gamut of production, including reducing plant water demands, increasing pest and disease resistance, and improving seed and fiber quality.

Cotton Incorporated scientists typically identify a need or a vulnerability and create and prioritize topics for potential projects. These projects are developed in coordination with agricultural research programs that will either be directly funded by the group or could be submitted to funding agencies for competitive grants. The Cotton Board reviews project proposals and approves them for submission to NIFA for competitive grant dollars.

The Cotton Board’s Cotton Research and Promotion Program has generated more than $4 million in competitive cotton research grants from NIFA over the past three years, Gillon said. When coupled with $1.35 million from the Cotton Board, the program has generated $5.4 million in agricultural research funding for projects critical to improving productivity and sustainability for upland cotton growers in the U.S.

Gillon said funding-match grants represent a collaborative investment that maximizes financial support for science, ultimately impacting growers and local economies throughout Texas and the Cotton Belt.

swfp-shelley-huguley-21-cotton-harvest-sunset-vert.jpgPublic-private strategic support for research emphasizing sustainable practices across the agricultural spectrum has far-reaching benefits, says Phillip Kaufman, head of the Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University. (Photo by Shelley E. Huguley)

“We value our long-standing relationship with Texas A&M and other institutions across the Cotton Belt because the work would not be done without their expertise,” he said. “We certainly view this as a partnership and want to support their land-grant mission and help researchers maintain their capabilities, programs and labs that continue to produce results critical for cotton producers and agricultural production.” 

Industry buy-in 

Phillip Kaufman, head of the Department of Entomology, said an overarching goal for his department is addressing relevant topics or concerns, from public health to agricultural production. Whether research meets the immediate needs of producers or lays the foundation for breakthroughs in coming decades, many agricultural research projects’ relevance is guided by producer input.

Industry buy-in is critical to entomology research, he said. Topics relevant to commodities, in this case, cotton, and the public’s interest, in this case, NIFA, is a good representation of how the land-grant mission delivers for producers but can also ripple through communities, the economy and the environment.

Kaufman said public-private strategic support for research emphasizing sustainable practices across the agricultural spectrum has far-reaching benefits.

“This grant project is a good example of how cotton producers, the gins and other elements of their industry effectively tax themselves to fund campaigns and research that adds value to what they produce,” he said. “It also shows the motivation from a public dollar perspective to invest in research focused on providing pest control methods that reduce chemical use.”

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Disease-resistant GM cassava promises to be game-changer for Kenya

BY JOSEPH MAINA

AUGUST 15, 2022

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At the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) center in Mtwapa, Kenya, scientist Paul Kuria uproots two sets of cassava tubers exposed to the devastating cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

One of the plants is a conventional cassava variety that has no immunity to the disease. The second has been genetically modified (GM) to resist the disease. Kuria punctiliously slices each of the tubers open, and the difference between the two is stark — like night and day.

The conventional tuber looks emaciated and is punctured with brownish, unsavory spots dotting the entire circumference of its flesh. The GM tuber, on the other hand, is the picture of good health. Its skin is flawless and firm, and its flesh has an impeccable, white lustre.

CBSD is considered one of the world’s most dangerous plant diseases due to its significant impact on food and economic security. Cassava varieties that are resistant to the disease could considerably improve the crop’s ability to feed Africa while generating income for smallholder farmers.

In severe cases, the disease can lead to 100 percent yield loss. As noted by KALRO and its partners, cassava resistant to CBSD is in high demand by farmers where the crop is grown.

Meeting that demand has been an elusive target for plant breeders. But through modern biotechnology, a collaborative effort known as the VIRCA project has developed CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046. It has the potential to prevent 90 percent of crop damage, thus improving the yield and marketability of cassava roots.

“We used genetic engineering and produced an improved cassava,” Professor Douglas Miano, the lead scientist in the project, told journalists and farmers who toured the KALRO grounds in Mtwapa in early August.

“It’s the first GM cassava in the world, and Kenya is leading in this production,” Miano said.

The VIRCA (Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa) project was conceived in 2005 with the aim of solving the viral diseases that suppress cassava yields and reduce farmer incomes in East Africa. It brings together KALRO, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre (DDPSC) in the United States.

“We have two main diseases affecting cassava production — CBSD and cassava mosaic disease,” Miano explained. “Cassava mosaic disease affects the leaves of the crop. The net effect is a reduction in the amount of cassava that is produced. CBSD, on the other hand, destroys the roots and affects the tuber.”

Scientists Paul Kuria displays GM disease-resistant cassava (left) vs cassava infected with CBSD. Photo: Joseph Maina

Dr. Catherine Taracha, a Kenyan who is on the project’s leadership team, said that plant viruses create a huge challenge for farmers.

“Cassava productivity is significantly hampered by viral diseases, and so we sought to develop a cassava line that would resist the viruses and thereby improve farmers’ livelihoods by boosting productivity and earnings from the crop,” Taracha said.

Because the line is yet to be approved for commercial release, the work is being carried out in regulated confined field trial conditions. If and when Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority approves line 4046 for the market, the new CBSD-resistant varieties would undergo normal government variety assessment and registration by regulators before being distributed to farmers.

The scientists further assure that CBSD-resistant cassava varieties are no different than their conventional equivalents — aside from their ability to resist CBSD.

“Due to the ability to resist CBSD, these varieties will be more productive with better quantity and quality of root yields,” Miano said.. “This will translate to greater demand and more profits for farmers.”

In addition, CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046 will produce disease-free planting material and thereby contribute to long-term sustainability of the cassava crop.

There will be no technology fee associated with line 4046, scientists say, implying that cassava stakes and cuttings will cost about the same as other highly valued cassava varieties.

Cuttings from CBSD-resistant cassava can be replanted in the same way farmers replant conventional cassava. They can also be grown with other crops because cultivation practices are the same as for conventional varieties.

The developers have further assured that CBSD-resistant cassava line is safe for the environment and biodiversity.

“We have developed the GM cassava up to the point where we have conducted all the safety studies and demonstrated that it is safe as food, feed and to the environment,” Miano said.

The general public and key stakeholders have been involved in the project, and it is anticipated that farmers and communities will be involved in selecting the best CBSD-resistant cassava varieties for their needs.

Cassava roots and leaves are the nutritionally valuable parts of the plant. The tuber is rich in gluten-free carbohydrates while the leaves provide vitamins A and C, minerals and protein. In addition to its nourishing properties, stakeholders have also identified cassava’s potential to spur Kenya’s industrial growth.

“Cassava is an important food crop, but we can also use it to industrialize in Kenya,” Miano asserted. “However, we have not yet been able to achieve this as a country.”

Miano identified starch as a potential cassava product that the country can leverage to advance its industrial growth. It is also projected that the improved cassava can protect farmers from devastating losses of this important food crop and contribute to the creation of thousands of jobs along the value chain due to the crop’s use as animal feed.

The scientists note that modern biotechnology is by far the best option to incorporate CBSD resistance in cassava cultivars carrying farmer-preferred characteristics. Similar approaches have been used to confer resistance to plant viruses and have been authorized by regulatory bodies around the world, including virus-resistant pawpaw, squash and beans.

Image: Scientist Paul Kuria displays cassava infected with cassava brown streak disease (left) and a GM variety that resists the devastating disease. Photo: Joseph Maina


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