Archive for May, 2015


4 May 2015. Source: National Geographic

Can This Scientist Unite Genetic Engineers and Organic Farmers?

DAVIS, California—Eighteen scientists are sitting in a lab, talking about new ways to feed the planet. These are some of the world’s foremost experts on rice. Most of them are from China. Nearly all of them are men.

But it’s an American woman—tan and fit at 54, with gray-brown hair and bright green eyes—who clearly runs the show. Her name is Pamela Ronald, and this is, after all, her laboratory.

Ronald is a plant pathologist and geneticist—a professor at the University of California, Davis whose lab has isolated genes from rice that can resist diseases and tolerate floods. When those genes are inserted into existing rice plants, they help farmers grow high-yield harvests in places where the crop is a vulnerable staple. Last year, four million subsistence farmers in seven countries fed millions of people by planting seeds that carry a gene Ronald and her collaborators isolated.

But her innovations aren’t limited to science. She’s also trying to mend the perceived schism between genetic engineering and organic farming. To do so, she’s promoting a form of sustainable agriculture that draws on both practices. Only by combining elements of each, she contends, will we have a chance of feeding the world’s swelling population (expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050) while also protecting the planet’s natural resources and countenancing the effects of climate change.

Last year, four million subsistence farmers in seven countries fed millions of people by planting seeds that carry a gene Pamela Ronald and her collaborators isolated.

It seems like a radical idea: There may be no more polarizing ideological debate today than the one over transgenic crops. Though there’s no meaningful scientific definition of “genetic modification” (GM)—virtually all the food we eat has been genetically improved in some manner—most critiques center on moving genes from one organism to another in a lab. For years many people around the world have been diametrically, often bitterly, opposed to this type of genetic engineering. (At least when it comes to crops. For whatever reason, few people seem to have a problem with insulin or other lifesaving GM medicines.)

But as Ronald sees it, plant geneticists and organic farmers aren’t enemies. In fact, they can be bedfellows: Her husband, Raoul Adamchak, is an organic farmer and co-author, with Ronald, of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Praised by Bill Gates and Michael Pollan, their book argues for an integrated theory of agriculture in which “organic farming and genetic engineering each will play an increasingly important role,” rather than being unnecessarily pitted against each other.

“All this arguing about what’s genetically modified is a big distraction from the really important goals,” says Ronald. “We need to produce safe and nutritious food that consumers can afford and farmers can make a profit from. And we need agricultural practices that enhance soil fertility and crop biodiversity, use land and water efficiently, reduce use of toxic compounds, reduce erosion, and sequester carbon. I think most everyone agrees on those general principles.”…



4 May 2015. Source: National Geographic

With one gene, molecular geneticist Steve Kemp may someday be able to boost the success of small farms across a huge swath of central Africa.

The gene is from a baboon, and it’s important because it produces a protein that kills a diabolical protozoan called Trypanosoma brucei. Trypanosoma brucei causes a deadly wasting disease–trypanomiasis–in both cattle and humans. Now stick with me, here’s where it gets interesting: That protozoan, called a trypanosome, is the reason one-third of the African continent–an area the size of the United States–is almost completely prevented from keeping livestock. That’s because the tse-tse fly, the trypanosome’s preferred method of transportation, lives there. Where flies can infect cattle, cattle usually can’t survive.

The implications of animal-free farming in the developing world are enormous. For starters, there’s malnutrition. A quarter of the 800 million malnourished people on our planet live in sub-Saharan Africa, and lack of protein is a significant contributing factor.

But the larger problem is labor. Kemp, who’s been working on the disease since the 1980’s, says “Western people don’t understand the role of livestock in developing world agriculture. You talk about cows dying or not, and they think of steak and milk. But livestock are fundamental. If someone’s main business is growing maize, but he’s got a bullock that can pull a plow in the field and pull a cart to market, that’s huge. It’s about oiling the wheels of an agricultural system, and you need livestock.” In that cattle-free zone, 90 percent of the land is still worked by hand.

Trypanosomiasis doesn’t just kill livestock. It gets people, too. The human version is called sleeping sickness. The trypanosomes infect the central nervous system and cause confusion, behavior changes, and the sleep disruption that gives the disease its name. Untreated, it’s generally fatal. Livestock are sometimes the source for human infection.

The problem is pressing, and it caught Kemp’s attention when it became apparent that at least one kind of African cattle–the N’Dama breed, native to west Africa–had some natural tolerance of trypanosomes. Kemp, who’s originally from the UK and works at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, set out to investigate the source of that tolerance, in the hopes of breeding it into other kinds of African cattle.

He ran into two problems. The first was that cattle’s tolerance turned out to be complex. “There are at least ten genes involved,” says Kemp. The more genes involved, the harder it is to breed the trait into an animal. The second was that, because the cattle still played host to the trypanosome, even tolerant animals would be a disease reservoir, threatening humans and other animals.

While Kemp was studying trypanosomiasis in cattle, Jayne Raper, Professor of Biological Sciences at City University of New York’s Hunter College, was studying its absence in baboons. Along with a few other primates, baboons have complete resistance to the disease, and Raper was studying the source of that resistance, looking for clues to fight the human version of trypanosomiasis, which infected 20,000 people in 2012, according to World Health Organization estimates. Raper discovered that a component of baboon cholesterol, a protein with the charismatic name ApoL1, kills the trypanosome by punching holes in its cell walls. (Humans produce a similar protein, which kills some trypanosomes but not T. brucei.)

As Kemp describes it, the two scientists had an a ha moment at a meeting at ILRI in 2006. Raper was working on isolating the baboon gene in the hopes of created trypanosome-resistant transgenic mice to prove her concept. Kemp explained the problem with cattle and, well, a ha! By 2008, Raper had her mice, and Kemp now estimates that they’re about a year away from having a transgenic cow grazing the ILRI pastures…



Farmer and consumer cost of delaying approval of single GM trait estimated at $19 billion

4 May, 2015. Source:

A new white paper shows that a three-year postponement in global approval of biotech-enhanced soybean traits any time in the next 10 years would cost farmers and consumers a total of nearly $19 billion, compared with typical approval timelines.

This new research was released during a recent International Soybean Growers Alliance (ISGA) mission. Farmer-leaders from the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay met with Chinese governmental officials and influencers to discuss the economic implications of these delays for global producers and consumers of soy.

Farmers in large soy-exporting countries that quickly adopt new technology — the U.S., Brazil and Argentina — and consumers in large importing countries —China and the nations in the European Union — have the most to lose from delayed approvals, according to the white paper.

As an example of important biotech approvals that farmers might need in the near future, the study examined herbicide-tolerance traits and analyzed the effects of approval delays through 2025.

Regulatory delays have real costs for society. For example, when new biotech herbicide-tolerant varieties are not approved in a timely manner, farmers continue to incur increased weed-control costs, potential yield losses and reductions in acreage. Some farmers may see greatly increased production costs or be forced out of farming entirely. At the same time, higher prices and reduced supplies strain consumers.


4 May 2015. Source:

Triple Null: New Genetically Modified Soybean A Big Benefit For Food Allergies

A new soybean with significantly reduced levels of three key proteins responsible for both its allergenic and anti-nutritional effects has been created. Soybean is a major ingredient in many infant formulas, processed foods and livestock feed used for agriculture. 

Conventional soybeans contain several allergenic and anti-nutritional proteins that affect soybean use as food and animal feed and in the U.S. alone, nearly 15 million people and 1 in 13 children suffer from food allergy…

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Eliot Herman and colleagues targeted P34 as the soybean’s key allergen, and genetically engineered it out of the crop. Although the new soybean may have been less likely to cause allergic reactions, testing was impeded by government restrictions.

To circumvent the issue, Herman, now a professor in the University of Arizona School of Plant Sciences, and colleagues set out to create a similar soybean using conventional breeding methods that do not fall under the legal definition of a GMO…

After nearly a decade of crossbreeding each variety to the soybean reference genome called Williams 82, the team has produced a soybean that lacks most of the P34 and trypsin inhibitor protein, and completely lacks soybean agglutinin. Beyond these characteristics, the soybean is nearly identical to Williams 82. They’ve dubbed the new variety “Triple Null.”

Because it is not a GMO, it can be grown organically, like is done with mutagenesis-derived plants and other legacy genetically modified foods, or transgenic methods could add other producer or consumer traits.

First up will be tests to evaluate the efficacy of the low-allergen soybean in swine.