March for Science: Agony and ecstasy of a Malaysian agricultural biotechnology science communicator

What can be more challenging than slogging in the laboratory, burning the midnight Bunsen burner, changing the methodology a few times, dealing with contaminated cell cultures and losing them, not having the transferred genes express themselves, and mining large genomics data in the terabytes?

It is communicating the science behind the research, repackaging it into plain language and dispelling the misinformation created by technology skeptics to ensure that viable science projects that help address food security and sustainable agriculture practices are commercialized, approved and reach the farms and our forks. This is no small task. Science communication is a complex field requiring special skills, training and experience. The heterogeneity of the public makes science communication both challenging and exciting. There is no cookie-cutter approach. Every audience, topic and concern must be approached differently. Each one is unique, requiring a customized communication strategy.

I have been a science communicator for 14 years and I have enjoyed every one of them, although it is not a bed of roses all the time. It requires patience and the ability to learn from our past mistakes and to perfect our techniques. Here I am sharing my agony and ecstasy.

The agony

Why is it that when scientists speak up for genetically modified (GM) crops we are immediately labeled as industry advocates and as recipients of industry money? In contrast, those who evangelize about organic products are seen as angels and saints? Yet, many of the critics of GM crops receive financial support from the organic industry and this industry has been no angel to science. Scientists who collaborate with agri-companies or receive funding from them are also demonized and their credibility trashed by critics. But, industry collaboration is not new in research at universities. The organic industry widely funds research. Why are only agribiotechnology scientists singled out?

Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Critics create myths about organic foods; instill guilt in mothers who don’t feed their families with organic foods; and force consumers to pay hefty premiums in the pretext of serving more nutritious and sustainably grown foods. The claims that organic foods are more nutritious have been debunked many times. In spite of all this, GM crops and those who support them are painted as evil. For these reasons, I avoid organic foods like the plague – it simply goes against my conscience.

Why is our job made so difficult while critics of GM crops have it easy? They create fear, doubts and myths. But those who embrace science take years to challenge the myths and doubts created by others. It takes years of research. Every time a doubt is created and turned into an unnecessary regulation, farmers pay the price in terms of economic losses. A good example is the failure to approve and commercialize insect resistant Bt brinjal in the Philippines (note the benefits were publicly acknowledged seven years ago but opponents successfully blocked its approval) and GM mustard in India.

It is not easy fighting ideology and hypocrisy with science. The opposition to GM crops has become a cult that no amount of science can dispel. I feel helpless when powerful tools are confiscated from farmers (see how EU “Urges the G8 member states not to support GMO crops in Africa”—clause 72). They are deprived of technological innovations that could help them practice agriculture sustainably, prevent occupational hazards that are caused by the use of pesticides, increase their income and reduce their loss and costs.

A common accusation by critics is that GM seeds are patented by big agri-companies. But they fail to acknowledge that organic products are patented as well. Another favorite of scaremongers is that GM crops are dangerous and can even kill. Yet, since 1996 not a single GM-related health hazard has been reported. Not one. We can’t however, say the same for organic produce. Read here, here and here to see the reality of safety of organic foods.

In spite of the mounting evidence on the benefits of GM crops, critics confuse the public with cooked-up “evidence” demonizing GM crops. For a science communicator backed by science, this is agonizing and makes my job extremely difficult.

The Ecstasy

When Malaysia was developing its Biosafety Act, I was involved in creating awareness about the need for a balanced, science-based regulatory instrument. I faced character assassination, accusations and sarcastic remarks.They were agonizing moments. But the agony turned to ecstasy when the act, and later the regulations and guidelines, became more science-based. Today, I sit in many meetings with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to help implement the regulations in a balanced manner.

There have been other moments of ecstasy as well. Years ago, I waded into untested waters when I tackled issues related to Islamic principles (Shariah compliance) and GM foods. As a non-Muslim, I took a risk in handling such a sensitive topic but there were many countries that were contemplating a fatwa (decree) against GM crops, i.e. to declare GM foods and crops as haram (non-permissible). I didn’t want the misinformation to spread among Muslim countries so I organized a dialogue between religious scholars and scientists.

The first meeting collapsed halfway through with many accusations hurled at me by GM opponents. I took a break from this topic for a while and analyzed my mistakes, found new credible partners and organized another high-level dialogue with top Islamic scholars from the Muslim world. It was a huge success. Here is the resolution that is used as a reference in many countries today that resulted from the discussion. Philippines became the first country after the dialogue to reverse its anti-GM rules, where initially they had a blanket decree claiming all GM foods were haram.

In 2010, I took a creative approach to educating a  group that otherwise wouldn’t take a second look at biotechnology  – fashion students, and through them a wider women’s group. I engaged a university and got its fashion students to design outfits based on biotechnology themes and organized a fashion show. This was part of a bigger event called “Bio Carnival” with poster drawings, coloring, public speaking, debate, quizzes and spelling competitions for students, and exhibitions and hands-on sessions for the public. It was a rewarding experience when the university later introduced biotechnology as a special project for fashion students after realizing how it inspired fashion designs through its colors and unique patterns. With this approach, all the students had to search for information on biotechnology and we educated them about science and innovation.

Then there is my favorite project. I was long frustrated with the amount of space the mainstream media devoted to science issues. I tried making friends with journalists and organizing media training for scientists but it really did not effect much change. So, I decided to create my own playing field, The Petri Dish – the first science newspaper in Malaysia. It is now seven years old and this year it graduated to become a digital portal to reach a wider audience.

The Petri Dish reaches all key stakeholders in Malaysia – academia, researchers, policymakers, politicians (all cabinet members receive a copy), students, industry and the general public. We make it available at shopping malls and Starbucks outlets. I know a number of ministers who read it, and once a topic was fiercely debated at the cabinet meeting after being reported in The Petri Dish.

This is our initiative in bringing science to the headlines. It is aimed at creating awareness among all stakeholders on biotechnology so the public will be more receptive to emerging technologies and policymakers will be able to make informed decisions on regulations and funding. It also encourages young people to pursue STEM education and careers. Every time, I receive positive feedback on Petri Dish, I feel a rush of ecstasy. It is a struggle to sustain a science newspaper but the feeling of inspiring people about science is rewarding.

Another area I enjoy is talking to students – both at schools and universities. These are uncorrupted minds and they are receptive to information backed by science when it is presented by a credible person. Every year, I reach out to more than 2000 students who are inspired by science and believe it offers solutions to many global problems.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that we need to build trust with our audiences before we start communicating with them: Connecting first and then communicating.

I believe the agony and ecstasy will continue, with exciting new developments in synthetic biology, gene editing and gene drives.

Mahaletchumy Arujanan is the Executive Director of Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) and Editor-in-Chief of The Petri Dish – the first science newspaper in Malaysia. She is also an Adjunct Lecturer at Monash University Malaysia. She has a degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology from Universiti Putra Malaysia, Masters in Biotechnology and PhD in science communication from the University of Malaya. She is an active science communicator who addresses policies, regulations, ethics, religions, STEM and other areas pertinent to biotechnology development. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @maha_mabic.

-Written by Mahaletchumy Arujanan in Genetic Literacy Project website.  See original article link here.

Scientific innovations solving agricultural problems

Agriculture plays a critical role in food security, political stability, and world peace and yet it leaves a big environmental footprint. Agriculture accounts for 33 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 75 percent of nitric oxide emissions. It’s also responsible for 70 percent of world water use, 50 percent of the topsoil loss, and drives 80 percent of the planet’s deforestation.

The challenge for all of us — as scientists, policy makers, farmers and consumers — is to mitigate these environmental insults while feeding 9+ billion people.

Fortunately, scientific innovations—including agricultural biotechnology—are helping us meet these challenges. I’d like to share five inspirational stories of people who are relying on science to address common, but daunting, farming issues.

The Nitrogen Problem

Giles Oldroyd, a professor at the John Innes Centre in the UK, is leading a team that aspires to engineer cereal crops, like maize, to produce their own nitrogen fertilizer by associating with soil microbes. This addresses three challenges: lack of access to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in areas of the developing world, like Sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are only 15-20 percent of those in similar climatic regions; eliminating the nitrogen run-off from farms and the associated release of nitric oxide; and reducing carbon emissions generated by the production of nitrogen fertilizers.  If Giles and his team are successful, farmers around the world will have access to cleaner, greener, cereal crops. Learn more about Giles’ mission to address the nitrogen problem here.

The Topsoil Problem

Bram Govaerts, a native of Belgium, works at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico.  Bram champions the adoption of conservation agriculture practices that reduce topsoil loss and offer myriad other benefits, such as reduced tillage, leaving surface resides on the land, and diversifying cropping systems. To help small-scale farmers across the developing world achieve widespread adoption of these practices, Bram uses cell phones, social media, and other communications and educational approaches, both online and offline. These strategies inspire change at both the farmer and policy levels. Bram is committed to helping farmers access the innovations to rise above subsistence farming. As he noted upon receiving the prestigious Borlaug Field Award in 2014: “The best recognition of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s legacy is to be conscious and shout out loud that farming is the future. It is our moral duty as researchers to bring pride back to the fields by harnessing the existing innovations of farmers and other value chain actors and fostering capacity and application of science and technology.”  See Bram in action here.

The Land Conservation Problem

To feed a growing population without encroaching further onto wild lands, scientists are looking to produce more food on less land. Researches are exploring such ingenious approaches as increasing the rates by which plants perform photosynthesis: the process of using light, water, and CO2 to produce biomass and food. Ultimately, this may help plants sequester CO2 more efficiently, which could boost yields without increasing cultivated acreage. Maureen Hanson, at Cornell University, is leading a collaborative team in the US and the UK to transfer the genes that code for a special compartment in microbes to flowering plants, which enables those plants to become more efficient at using CO2 to to produce biomass. Stephen Long, a scientist in Illinois working on the RIPE (Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency) project, is taking another approach to increase rates of photosynthesis. These applications of genetic engineering are innovative models for helping us to produce more with less. Read about Stephen’s work to improve photosynthesis in cassava here. And Maureen’s work here.

The Pesticide Problem 

Researchers in Bangladesh helped reduce insecticide use by smallholder farmers when they developed a variety of insect-resistant eggplant — or brinjal, as it is known in South Asia — in 2014. Brinjal that incorporates resistance conferred by bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) required the will of forward-thinking political leaders, such as Bangladesh Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury, to get approved and on the market.  Now, farmers who used to spray their brinjal as frequently as twice a day have reduced their pesticide use by as much as 80 percent.  This means a healthier farmer, a healthier environment, healthier consumers, and a huge cost savings for small-scale farmers.  With the additional income generated by their crops of pesticide-free GMO eggplant, farmers can afford to better feed and educate their families, which may further help break the cycle of poverty cycle. Watch farmers discuss their success with Bt brinjal here.

The Thirsty Plants Problem

Researchers in eastern Africa, such as plant breeder Elizma Joubert and entomologist Regina Tende, are part of a global public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). They are working to produce GM maize that can resist insects and thrive on limited amounts of water — an ever-increasing challenge as drought has become the new norm for many farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa, where maize is an important staple crop. WEMA already is being grown commercially in South Africa, and has been successfully field-tested in Kenya and Uganda. Most recently, Tanzania conducted its first-ever GMO field trial, and the drought-tolerant WEMA showed good results. Learn more about this historic trial and the potential it holds for small-scale farmers here.

These five innovations are mitigating agriculture’s use of nitrogen, topsoil and land; helping plants be more efficient at using nitrogen and water; and reducing pesticide use. These are just some of the ways that agricultural scientists are helping improve global food security, reduce poverty, and achieve environmental sustainability. To translate this innovative research into global practices that reduce the environmental footprint of the food we eat requires political will and the public support of policy makers, farmers and all of us, as consumers.

Join us on Earth Day, April 22, as we March for Science as a global community in support of science and innovation needed to address the great environmental and agricultural challenges we face.

Sarah Evanega holds a doctorate in plant biology from Cornell University, where she is the director of the Alliance for Science and senior associate director for International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

-Written by Sarah Evanega in Alliance for Science website.  See original article link here.

Expert: Biotechnology Will Aid Sustainable Agricultural Production

Prof. Benjamin Ubi, the President, (BSN), says the adoption of biotechnology will facilitate sustainable agricultural production in the country.

Ubi made the declaration in an interview with News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Abuja on Thursday

He said that the adoption of biotechnology applications was the panacea to the current food challenges facing the country.

“Biotechnology, including genetic engineering and production of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), provides powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture, fishery and forestry, as well as meeting the food needs of the population.

“GMOs currently account for about 16 per cent of the world’s crops, particularly crops like soybean, maize, cotton and canola, and there are indications that the growing trend will continue.

“So, we must eat what we grow and grow what we eat. This means we ought to produce more and agricultural biotechnology is a tool for achieving this,’’ he said.

Ubi also pledged the support of the BSN for the efforts of National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to harness the potential of modern biotechnology.

“BSN, as a stakeholder in biosafety, will continue to support NBMA; we should all be rest assured that no biotechnology product will be imposed on anyone.

“Hunger and peace work hand-in-hand, so lack of hunger consequently promotes peace; therefore, biotechnology and its derivatives should be adopted for the benefit of Nigerians, while maintaining regulatory standards.

“Biotechnology and biosafety stakeholders must, therefore, work in tandem with global bodies because Nigeria is not a pariah nation; we are a responsible and respected member of the global community,’’ he said.

Ubi urged anti-GMO campaigners not to play politics with issues that could engender food security and alleviate poverty, saying that tangible efforts should be made to enhance the availability and affordability of high-quality foods via biotechnology applications.

“I assure all that modern biotechnology had been found to be safe by global certification bodies.

“All the same, informed criticism is good for checks and balances but it should not be allowed to be a clog the wheel of progress,’’ he added.

-Published in PM News Nigeria.  See original article link here.

March for Science goes international

The Cornell Alliance for Science global network is planning to join the March for Science in key international locales on April 22, as well as Washington, D.C., and its home base of Ithaca, NY.

Science allies are organizing marches in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Hawaii, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, London and other places.

Bangladesh

Arif Hossain, a communications officer with the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership and an Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow, is organizing the march in Dhaka: “I believe in science, and to me this celebration is an inspiration and impulse to work for better health services, safer living, quality education and an enlightened future. I am marching to let the world know that we are united for science in Bangladesh. We have 160 million people to feed in the changed climate and together we will make a better day with science and innovation.”

Philippines

Marshall “Marlo” Asis, an agricultural journalist and Global Leadership Fellow, is helping to organize the march at the Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City: “As a historic first, the March for Science will serve as an agent of transformation in uniting Filipinos yearning for change with biotechnology at the heart of the discussion. Indeed for us, silence is no longer an option! It is high time to tell the world that good science intended for the common good must be once and for all accessible to those who need it most — the hungry, the malnourished and the poor.”

Uganda

Clet Wandui Masiga, a conservation biologist, geneticist and Global Leadership Fellow, is co-coordinating the march in Uganda:   “We have those people who know the truth about science, but they are silent. This silence is giving anti-science activists an opportunity to misinform the public. I am therefore going to march to show the world that I support and use science, and people should be allowed to have access to science to make decisions for themselves.”

Mexico

Luis Ventura-Martinez, a biologist on the faculty of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Global Leadership Fellow, is participating in the Mexico City march: “I am for Mexico, and just like what is sadly happening in other developing countries, science is not a priority for our government, which recently reduced the financial support to science. We, the science allies, should show that no one deserves to be forgotten, that the science matters, and that we are here.

“We need to call out for science, because science is not alone. And from across the silence, and from across the world, our voices will be heard. We need to do this not just for the scientists, but for everyone, for all of us.”

Nigeria

Nkechi Isaac, a Nigerian journalist and Global Leadership Fellow, is joining the march in Nigeria:  “At the current population of over 180 million people, Nigeria is faced with the risk of malnutrition and hunger because the conventional method of agriculture can no longer meet up with our demand. Science holds the solution to our food security.

“Science is revolutionary. It holds the key to constant development and improvement for addressing climate change, food shortage and challenges in medicine. The March for Science provides an opportunity for scientists and science supporters to take a stand and highlight the immense benefits available for Nigeria in science.”

Hawaii

Marches are planned on the islands of Oahu, Hawaii, Maui and Kauai, where Sarah Thompson, coordinator of the Hawaii Alliance for Science, will be participating: “We are united in a love of science, an insatiable curiosity of it.  We know that science is everywhere and affects everyone. We seek to build a grassroots network of like-minded individuals who support science and science-based decision making.”

Remember to pick up your March for Science tee-shirts, social media materials and free downloadable posters at the Alliance for Science store.

-Released by Cornell Alliance for Science Global Network.  See original article link here.

Bangladesh to release 3 more Bt brinjal varieties

Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) will release three more varieties of the country’s first genetically modified (GM) crop–Bt Brinjal, which is infused with a pest-resistant gene.

BARI Director General Dr Abul Kalam Azad made the announcement at a workshop on “Bt Eggplant Research and Development,” at a hotel in Dhaka today.

“Bt technology is not a panacea. It works only against shoot and fruit borer. For other diseases, we must manage using other mechanisms,” he added.

Addressing the occasion, Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury said that government is ready to accept any advanced technology keeping in mind the safety of the people.

Currently, around 6,000 farmers in 36 districts are cultivating four Bt Brinjal verities— BARI Bt (Uttara), BARI Bt (Kajla), BARI Bt (Nayontar) and ISD006 Bt BARI.

Farmers from Rajshahi, Rangpur, Pabna and Gazipur started cultivating the Bt Brinjal for the first time in 2014. With the journey of cultivating Bt Brinjal, Bangladesh has joined a group of 29 countries that grow GM crops.

BARI Chief Scientific Officer ASM Mahbubur Rahman Khan gave a presentation on “Performance of Bt Brinjal varieties at Farmers Field” and Prof Anthony M Shelton, director of Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Project from Cornell University, also spoke at the function.

-Published in The Daily Star.  See original article link here.

All in the name of food security

PRESIDENTIAL Proclamation 1414, signed in 2007, stipulates “the policy of government to promote safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology and its products as one of the several means to achieve and sustain food security, equitable access to health and services, sustainable and safe environment and industry development.”

Biotechnology, coined by Hungarian agricultural economist Karl Erchy by combining the two words, “bio [from biology]” and technology, is considered as a possible solution to the impending wave of hunger the world will be facing in the future.

Referring to that brance of science, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug commented: “I [can] now say that the world has the technology—either available or well-advance in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology.”

The tools used in biotechnology include gene cloning, tissue culture, microbial culture, DNA-marker technology and genetic engineering. The latter is the most controversial as, it is the method used in developing genetically modified organisms.

To a nonscientist, biotechnology is too hard to understand. But for an American scientist like Frank A. Shotkoski, it is as easy as eating fried chicken or drinking lemon juice. Ask him anything about it, and he will not deviate from the subject.

Currently, he maintains an adjunct professor position at Cornell University in the College of Life Science Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics. He originally joined the university in 2005 as Director of Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), where he directed several biotechnology commercialization projects in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. The program ended in November 2016, but he is still working pro bono on the projects in Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Biotech as boon

“I see biotechnology as an important component of the many technologies and choices that we have available to provide food security, human nutrition and health for an ever-expanding population,” Shotkoski said in an exclusive interview. “This is especially important for agriculture, where farmers are faced with many biotic and abiotic constraints, most of which can’t be dealt with using conventional technologies.”

The man knows what he is talking about. He has worked in both agricultural and medical technology and biotechnology all of his professional career. He has witnessed and experienced the benefits of biotechnology firsthand and understood well the potential future benefits to mankind that will come from this technology.

What makes Shotkoski a credible source of information when it comes to biotechnology is that he has been directly involved in the development and commercialization of two important products of genetic engineering.

It was in Bogor, Indonesia, where we had the pleasure of meeting Shotkoski. He was one of the invited speakers for the biotechnology workshop for Asian journalists. It was there we learned he had been to the Philippines several times already. In fact, he is happily married to a Filipina, Anna Marie Jensen (more popularly known as Francine Prieto).

It was in 2005 that he first came to the Philippines. As the newly appointed director of ABSPII, he visited the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB). “I spent most of my time in Los Baños working with our research team on the bacillus thuringiensis talong, ringspot virus-resistant papaya and multivirus-resistant tomato projects. I was very impressed with the professionalism of the staff and students regarding their work and dedication to the project. [And also] by their willingness to enjoy an active social life,” he recalled.

Loving the Philippines

Shotkoski finds Filipinos as his kind of people: They work hard, he said, “And they play hard!”

Aside from the people, what made him attracted to the Philippines is the natural beauty of the country. “The fantastic beaches, ocean adventures, cultural uniqueness, affordability and interesting food,” he said.

Now, going back to biotechnology. According to him, he became interested in science and technology at a quite young age. “I still remember as far back as kindergarten, our teacher showed the class a drawing of a crop duster plane spraying a crop field with insecticide,” he recalled. “The next page had a drawing of an ominous-looking grasshopper [which was] even larger than the plane from the previous drawing. The teacher went on to explain to us that because of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, we were creating superbugs that could survive the pesticide applications.”

“In my mind, I envisioned those large mutant grasshoppers knocking the crop duster planes out of the air and killing the pilots. I decided then that something had to be done about the bad situation, and it stuck with me until now. Of course, I later learned more about pesticide toxicology and the development of resistance,” he related.

The young Shotkoski grew up on a working farm in Nebraska, where people grew corn, alfalfa, sorghum and other row crops. “I was well aware of the production constraints associated with insect pests, diseases and weeds, as well as the extreme labor and intensive work involved in controlling and managing these problems,” he said. “I was convinced that there had to be an easier way to make a living on the farm.”

-Written by Henrylito D. Tacio in BusinessMirror.  See original article link here.

11 researchers recognized for work for PHL development

Eleven Filipino researchers received recognition for their contributions to the country’s development at the recent Annual Scientific Conference and 84th General Membership Assembly of the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines (DOST-NRCP).

The researchers were cited for their various contributions in the areas of science education, environmental studies, pharmaepidemiology, maternal health care, research on natural products and toxicology, cost-effective biofungicides for important tropical crops, biotechnology, eco-industrial energy systems, languages, statistical mechanics, industrial and health application of carrageenan, rainfall forecasting and veterinary immunology and public health and others.

This year’s conference theme is “Philippine Development: Foregrounding Ethical and Moral Values.” Rev. Fr. Albert E. Alejo, SJ, PhD, inspired and enlightened the participants to the conference on the issues of researches. He posed questions, such as, “Am I a better person by becoming a researcher?”

Alejo shared his research engagements in Mindanao, especially in the conflict areas of Basilan. The hundreds of guests at the conference held recently at the Philippine International Convention Center on Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City, were researchers from various areas in the country.

Recognized for their exemplary contributions were the following:

  • Dr. Socorro E. Aguja for her contributions to science education, environmental studies, human capital development and citriculture, as well as for her active involvement in science education and teacher mentorship.
  • Dr. Godofreda R. Vergeire-Dalmacion for her effectual influences on the areas of pharmacoepidemiology, pharmacovigilance and maternal health care.
  • Dr. Jovencio G. Apostol for his pioneering research on natural products and beneficial contributions to vascular pharmacology, toxicology, pharmacogenomics, pharmacy education, clinical pharmacy and pharmacy practice.
  • Dr. Dionisio G. Alvindia for his groundbreaking work in the development of natural and cost-effective bio fungicides for banana, mango and other important tropical crops, which led to the reduction of worker and environment exposure, as well as industry dependence on harmful pesticides.
  • Dr. Danilda Hufana-Duran for her pioneering research and accomplishments on the development and use of advanced reproductive biotechnologies and establishing laboratory standards and protocols that resulted in the production and propagation of genetically superior water buffaloes.
  • Dr. Kathleen B. Aviso for her work in the development of modeling techniques for the design and planning of eco-industrial and energy systems.
  • Dr. Alfredo C. Robles Jr. for his widely published scholarly work on Asean-EU relations and on the Asia-Europe Meeting process,  characterized by its retrospective and prospective focus, its rigorous and theoretical approaches, and its broad empirical scope in terms of sources and languages.
  • Dr. Jose Perico H. Esguerra for his numerous contributions to the statistical mechanics of self-gravitating systems, random walks, Brownian motion, and first passage processes, applications of fractional calculus in physics and mathematical methods for nonlinear and quantum systems along with his two decades of educating students and professionals in physics, his mentorship of Philippine teams in international Olympiads.
  • Dr. Annabelle V. Briones for her studies on various innovative techniques on the use of carrageenan for an array of industrial and health applications; indigenous sources for new products; and her initiatives on the development of DOST Mosquito Ovi-Larvicidal Trap System.
  • Dr. Carlos Primo C. David for his innovative contributions in short-term rainfall forecasting in the Philippines, as well as scholarly works on hydrology, climate change and environmental geology; and active participation in climate change-related research focusing on water resources, along with his service to youth education and the scientific community.
  • Dr. Claro N. Mingala for his contributions in the fields of veterinary immunology, microbiology, molecular biology and public health; as well as the development of DNA-based and rapid diagnostic tools for economically important animal diseases, for which he has gained national recognition.

Each awardee received a cash prize of P25,000, a medallion of excellence and a plaque of recognition. The conferment ceremony was led by the NRCP President and National Scientist Edgardo D. Gomez and Science Undersecretary for S&T Services Dr. Carol M. Yorobe, assisted by the NRCP Executive Director Dr. Marieta Bañez Sumagaysay.

NRCP is a collegial and Science and Technology advisory body of the Department of Science and Technology with more than 4,000 member-researchers, scientists and technologists across the country and around the world.

-Published in BusinessMirror.  See original article link here.

China aims to sow a revolution with GM seed takeover

Summary

The planned takeover of Swiss seed giant Syngenta by Chinese state-owned chemical company ChemChina stands to change the outlook for biotech research in China. Although China imports preapproved genetically modified (GM) foods and generously funds GM research, the Chinese government has never approved a staple biotech food crop for cultivation. That may soon change, however. If the Syngenta takeover clears regulatory hurdles, the emergence of a massive state-owned company in possession of competitive GM seed lines could help speed along commercialization of key GM crops like corn. Researchers will still face an uphill battle, though—a Chinese public wary of government food safety claims largely opposes GM crops.

-Written by Mara Hvistendahl in Science Magazine.  Read the full article here.

Marine microorganisms vs ‘superbugs’ discovered

A breakthrough research program funded by the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines (DOST-NRCP) has discovered microorganisms which can kill “superbugs” or bacteria that are resistant to modern antibiotics.

The research program “Marine Sediment-Derived Actinobacteria: New Vista for Natural Products Discovery in the Philippines” was led by NCRP researcher Dr. Doralyn Dalisay.

Dalisay’s team discovered special types of microorganism from sediments collected from the ocean floor which have demonstrated an ability to kill aggressive disease-causing pathogens or superbugs, the DOST-NRCP said in a bulletin post.

Superbugs refer to bacteria which have developed genes that are resistant to different antibiotics. In effect, the infections caused by superbugs are harder to treat.

“The findings are quite promising and if more microorganisms like these will be discovered and tested, this [endeavor] will place the Philippines in the global frontiers of medical and therapeutic research,” said Dalisay, who is based in University of San Agustin in Iloilo.

“The highly biodiverse marine microorganisms thriving in the sediments surrounding the Philippine archipelago have not been investigated well with regard to their potential for developing products that are of interest in biotechnology and pharmaceutical sciences”, Dr. Dalisay added.

The NRCP bared that the extracts from the library “showed strong inhibitory activities against a panel of test pathogenic drug-resistant bacteria and fungi.”

The NRCP said the first and second phase of the research program focused on isolating marine sediment-derived microorganisms, determine their antimicrobial activities and bio-geographical distribution in the Philippine archipelago.

The research is now on its third phase which aims to “evaluate the microorganisms’ anti-cancer activities, study their biodiversity, and perform genomic analysis to establish relationships between metabolite biosynthesis potential, taxonomy, and the habitats and locations from which the isolates originate.”

-Written by Martin Sadongdong in Manila Bulletin.  See original article link here.

US gives tentative OK to Chinese takeover of Syngenta

U.S. regulators have agreed to a Chinese conglomerate’s proposed $43 billion acquisition of Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta on condition it sells some businesses to satisfy anti-monopoly objections.

The Federal Trade Commission’s announcement follows approval last year by European regulators of the purchase by state-owned ChemChina. It would be China’s biggest foreign acquisition to date.

ChemChina, also known as China National Chemical Corp., agreed to sell businesses that make an herbicide, an insecticide and a fungicide for which combined market shares with Syngenta would cause “significant competitive harm,” an FTC statement said Tuesday.

Chinese companies are engaged in a multibillion-dollar global buying spree to acquire technology and brands to improve their competitive edge as explosive growth in their home economy slows.

At the same time, the global industry that supplies farm chemicals, biotechnology and other inputs is in the midst of a shake-up as tumbling commodity prices squeeze spending by farmers.

A U.S. government national security panel approved the ChemChina-Syngenta tie-up in August despite complaints by some legislators who cited the potential for “risks to our food system.”

ChemChina subsidiary ADAMA Agricultural Solutions Ltd. agreed to sell businesses in the United States that produce the herbicide paraquat, the insecticide abamectin and the fungicide chlorothalonil to American Vanguard Corp. and its affiliate Amvac Chemical Corp.

The FTC said Syngenta owns branded versions of all three chemicals, while ADAMA is the No. 1 or 2 supplier of generic versions in the United States.

ChemChina Chairman Ren Jianxin has said he hopes to expand Syngenta’s presence in China and other emerging markets.

Ren is China’s most aggressive global dealmaker and has spent more than $60 billion on acquisitions since 2010. They include Italian tire brand Pirelli, Norwegian chemical supplier Elkem and KraussMaffei, a German industrial machinery maker.

Almost all proposed Chinese acquisitions of U.S. assets have been approved by regulators. Still, mergers consultants say the prospect of undergoing a security review has put off some potential buyers, making acquisitions in Europe and other markets look more attractive.

-Written by The Associated Press and published in Manila Bulletin.  See original article link here.

Global rice program to explore boosting Asia’s rice-based agriculture through crop diversification

BANGKOK, Thailand—The CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on rice agri-food systems (RICE) is developing a framework for partnerships that will work to intensify and diversify Asia’s rice-based farming systems.

Under its Sustainable Farming Systems project, RICE will develop and deliver options that will improve farm livelihoods and rural diets while minimizing the environmental footprint of rice-based farming systems in potential target regions across Asia. To achieve this, the program held a workshop on 28-29 March in Bangkok to develop a framework for partnerships with other agri-food system CRPs, CGIAR Centers, and national and international institutes to improve farm livelihoods and rural diets, while minimizing their environmental footprint, through novel rice-based farming systems . Potential target regions are eastern India, Myanmar, southern Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

The workshop was attended by scientists and experts representing Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, World Vegetable Center, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Participants from national agricultural research and extension systems of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Thailand also joined the event.

Among the outputs of this activity include identifying the main challenges and opportunities in crop diversification, developing conceptual model systems for specific environments and countries, developing research methodologies and work plans for possible funding, and exploring options to create a consortium on rice-fallow systems in Asia.

Dr. Bas Bouman, RICE Director, and Dr. David Johnson, Head of the Crop and Environmental Sciences Division (IRRI) led the workshop.

-Published in IRRI’s website.  See original article link here.

Thailand launches New Investment Incentives on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Advanced Materials Technology and Digital Technology

Mrs. Hirunya Suchinai, Secretary General of the Board of Investment (BOI), revealed after the board meeting chaired by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha that in order to boost Thailand 4.0 and promote investment in 10 targeted industries, the board has approved the technology-based incentives to enhance the country’s technological competitiveness, details as follows:

1. Core technologies promotion measure: special package of incentives will be granted to projects focusing on developing the country’s targeted technology. Projects that obtain this package of incentive is required to have technology collaboration with educational or research institutes. The technology-based investment includes:

1.1) Investment on targeted core technologies which include Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Advanced Materials technology and Digital technology

1.2) Investment on enabling services which include those high-value added services that support targeted technology development, namely research and development (R&D), vocational training institute (science and technology sectors), electronic design, engineering design service, science laboratory service, and

These 2 groups will be eligible for a 10-year corporate income tax (CIT) exemption and additional incentives for 1-3 years, altogether with no more than 13 years.

2. An exemption on duty of materials, such as prototype, plant or animal, used for research and development. 3. An adjustment of merit-based incentives: projects investing on technology and workforce development will be eligible to include the investment value for CIT exemption from up to 100% to 200%, while projects investing on research and development are eligible to a maximum of 300%

Moreover, the board also agreed to help BOI’s promoted projects affected by flooding in Southern area with a duty exemption on machinery imported to replace the damaged ones. The application form must be submitted by 29 December 2017.

Source: Thailand’s Board of Investment (BOI)

-Published in Smart International Consulting.  See original article link here.

New GM technology paves the way for northern Australia’s cotton dreams

A new variety of genetically modified cotton is shaping up to be a game-changer for those looking to grow cotton in northern Australia.

Monsanto’s new Bollgard 3 is currently being trialled on a farm in the Kimberley’s Ord Irrigation Scheme in far north Western Australia.

It was planted in early February during the wet season and is showing positive signs of being resistant to insects, especially when compared to the Bollgard 2 and conventional cotton varieties that have also been planted in the trial.

CSIRO researcher Stephen Yeates said the cotton industry may have finally found a plant that could withstand the insect pressures of northern Australia’s wet season.

“The Bollgard 3 has an additional gene, which will control a key wet season pest called spodoptera,” he told ABC Rural.

“The additional gene is the only difference [to Bollgard 2]. They’re identical in every other way.

“So one of the reasons we’ve put both varieties in this trial, is to confirm there are no differences in the agronomic traits, confirm the similarities, and it’s only that [extra] insect control which is different.”

Dr Yeates said the Bollgard 3 plants at this stage were growing the same as Bollgard 2, but the increased resistance to insects was noticeable.

The Ord trial is expected to be harvested in June.

Still a lot of work ahead for northern cotton

It is not just the Ord Valley showing an interest in cotton, with farmers in the Burdekin and Gulf regions of Queensland also looking into cotton opportunities.

Dr Yeates said the introduction of Bollgard 3 gave farmers in northern Australia the opportunity to plant during the wet season, which had a number of advantages.

“The idea is to plant later in the wet season, from late January onwards, so that the early growth of the cotton is during the wet weather, and then you get the boll filling during that critical stage where you need reliable sunlight, in that April, May period if you plant early,” he said.

“So you plant in the second half of the wet, you probably don’t need to irrigate [initially], then finish the crop with irrigation and harvest in June.

“If you can get a crop off in June, you could then grow a second crop after cotton and in terms of returns, two crops would be a really big bonus.”

However, Mr Yeates said planting in the wet season also presented challenges, and accessing paddocks would be difficult in some years.

The current plan in the Ord Valley, being driven mostly by the company Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI), is to develop more of the region’s sandier, well-draining soils, which would improve the chances of being able to access land during the wet season to plant cotton.

KAI general manager Jim Engelke said the company was willing to invest in a cotton processing plant, but it would need about 10,000 hectares of cotton a year to make it viable.

Bollgard 3 growing commercially in the eastern states

Cotton growers in southern Queensland and New South Wales are growing Bollgard 3 commercially for the first time this year.

Andrew Sevil, from Whyenbah near St George, said despite a bad run of weather in his region, the cotton had performed well.

“From my perspective it hasn’t been too different, but I guess we won’t know until we get the cotton into the gin to see what the end result is,” he said.

“Talking to our agronomist, he’s reasonably optimistic and thinks it’s fared fairly well under difficult conditions.”

Mr Sevil said the new cotton had shown good resistance to the pest heliothis, and he was hopeful of getting 12 bales a hectare.

On its website, Monsanto describes Bollgard 3 as a “major milestone for innovation in cotton”.

“Having three proteins (genes) will increase the longevity of the technology as each protein has a different mode of action, which means each protein kills larvae in a different way,” it said.

-Written by Matt Brann in ABC News. See original article link here.

GMO banana offers hope for disease and pest resistance

Transgenic bananas appear to successfully resist a bacterial wilting disease and pest species that are devastating the critical food crop in tropical regions across the planet, according to a newly published scientific paper.

The research has tremendous implications for Africa, which produces about a third of the 145 million tons of banana grown globally each year and 72 percent of the plantains. Banana production is an important source of income and food security for small-holder farmers, who have experienced significant crop losses due to disease, especially in East Africa.

Researchers turned to genetic engineering for a solution because “development of nematodes or banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW)-resistant cultivars by traditional crosspollination techniques is hampered by the sterility of the polyploid genomes of cultivated banana and plantains,” stated the paper, which was published March 29 in “Food and Energy Security.”

Transgenic banana grown in both glasshouses and confined field trials demonstrated 100 percent resistance to BXW. Disease resistance was achieved by transferring two resistance genes from sweet pepper into banana, both singly and as stacked traits. These genes have provided disease resistance in other plants, including tobacco, tomato, orchids, calla lily, and rice. Researchers also have identified several other potential transgenes that could confer resistance to BXW.

Several transgenic defenses against nematodes are in different stages of development, according to the paper. Confined field trials using cystatin and peptide defenses show strong potential for nematode resistance — research that also could have positive implications for other crops affected by the destructive pest worms.

Currently, nematodes are controlled in commercial plantations by “environmentally damaging pesticides that are not normally available to or suitable for small-holders in Africa,” the paper stated. Small-holder farmers do not have sufficient land to rotate their crops.

The paper also reported that there is “no risk of gene flow from transgenic banana plants to either wild or cultivated plants” because most edible cultivars are sterile and therefore cannot cross-pollinate because they produce no seeds or pollen.

Leena Tripathi, a plant biotechnologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nairobi, wrote the paper with assistance from Howard Atkinson, Hugh Roderick, Jerome Kubiriba and Jaindra N. Tripathi.

The research was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Department for International Development (DFID) and the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

-Written by Joan Conrow and published in Cornell University Alliance for Science Global Network website.  See original article link here.

New rice fights off drought

Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) have developed strains of rice that are resistant to drought in real-world situations. Published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the study reports that transgenic rice modified with a gene from the Arabidopsis plant yield more rice than unmodified rice when subjected to stress brought by natural drought. The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and the Japanese International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS) in Japan.

As the amount of rice needed to help feed the global population increases, the consequences of drought-related crop reduction are becoming more severe. RIKEN scientists and their collaborators tackled this issue by developing transgenic strains of rice that are more resistant to drought.

Normally, plants adapt to drought-related stress by producing osmoprotectants — molecules like soluble sugars that help prevent water from leaving cells. Galactinol synthase (GolS) is an enzyme needed to produce one these important sugars called galactinol. In previous work, RIKEN scientists showed that Arabidopsis plants express the AtGolS2 gene in response to drought and salinity stress.

“The Arabidopsis GolS2 gene was first identified with basic research at RIKEN,” explains RIKEN scientist Fuminori Takahashi. “Using it, we were able to improve resistance to drought-related stress, and increased the grain yield of rice in dry field conditions. This is one of the best model cases in which basic research knowledge has been successfully applied toward researching a resolution to a food-related problem.”

For this study, they created several lines of transgenic Brazilian and African rice that overexpress this gene, and with their CIAT and JIRCAS collaborators, tested how well the rice grew in different conditions in different years.

The results were very promising. First, they grew the different rice lines in greenhouse conditions and showed that the modified Brazilian and African rice did indeed show higher levels of galactinol than the unmodified control rice. Next, they tested tolerance to drought during the seedling growth period because this period often overlaps with seasonal drought. In order to precisely control this part of the experiment, it was conducted in a rainout shelter that allowed them to artificially create drought-like conditions. After three weeks, the modified strains had grown taller and showed less leaf-rolling, a common response to drought stress.

Drought tolerance was next confirmed at the reproductive stage in three rainout field trials in Colombia. These trials were during different seasons and different locations. Nevertheless, transgenic lines in both species of rice showed higher yield, greater biomass, lower leaf-rolling, and greater fertility than the unmodified rice. Closer examination showed that five of the most promising strains had greater relative water content during drought conditions, and also used more light for photosynthesis, and contained more chlorophyll.

Finally, they tested the transgenic rice over a three-year period in different natural environments. Again, several of the transgenic strains showed higher grain yield under mild and severe natural drought.

When might we see this useful rice on the market? According to Takahashi, the greatest barrier to commercial availability is that they used genetically modified (GM) technology to generate the GolS2 transgenic rice. “Now, we have begun our next collaborative project, in which we will generate useful rice without GM technology. It might take 5-10 years to reach our goal, but we must keep pressing forward because droughts and climate change might get worse in the future.”

###

Reference: Selvaraj M, Ishizaki T, Valencia MO, Ogawa S, Dedicova B, Ogata T, Yoshikawa K, Maruyama K, Kusano M, Saito K, Takahashi F, Shinozaki K, Nakashima K, Ishitani M. Overexpression of an Arabidopsis thaliana galactinol synthase gene improves drought tolerance in transgenic rice and increased grain yield in the field. Plant Biotechnology Journal. doi: 10.1111/pbi.12731.

-Public release published via EurekaAlert.  See original article link here.

Scientists engineer sugarcane to produce biodiesel, more sugar for ethanol

A multi-institutional team led by the University of Illinois have proven sugarcane can be genetically engineered to produce oil in its leaves and stems for biodiesel production. Surprisingly, the modified sugarcane plants also produced more sugar, which could be used for ethanol production.

The dual-purpose bioenergy crops are predicted to be more than five times more profitable per acre than soybeans and two times more profitable than corn. More importantly, sugarcane can be grown on marginal land in the Gulf

Coast region that does not support good corn or soybean yields.

“Instead of fields of oil pumps, we envision fields of green plants sustainably producing biofuel in perpetuity on our nation’s soil, particularly marginal soil that is not well suited to food production,” said Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences. Long leads the research project Plants Engineered to Replace Oil in Sugarcane and Sweet Sorghum (PETROSS) that has pioneered this work at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.
“While fuel prices may be considered low today, we can remember paying more than $4 per gallon not long ago,” Long said. “As it can take 10-15 years for this technology to reach farmers’ fields, we need to develop these solutions to ensure our fuel security today and as long as we need liquid fuels into the future.”

Published in Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology, this paper analyzes the project’s first genetically modified sugarcane varieties. Using a juicer, the researchers extracted about 90% of the sugar and 60% of the oil from the plant; the juice was fermented to produce ethanol and later treated with organic solvents to recover the oil. The team has patented the method used to separate the oil and sugar.

They recovered 0.5 and 0.8 percent oil from two of the modified sugarcane lines, which is 67% and 167% more oil than unmodified sugarcane, respectively. “The oil composition is comparable to that obtained from other feedstocks like seaweed or algae that are being engineered to produce oil,” said co-author Vijay Singh, Director of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at Illinois.

“We expected that as oil production increased, sugar production would decrease, based on our computer models,” Long said. “However, we found that the plant can produce more oil without loss of sugar production, which means our plants may ultimately be even more productive than we originally anticipated.”

To date, PETROSS has engineered sugarcane with 13 percent oil, 8 percent of which is the oil that can be converted into biodiesel. According to the project’s economic analyses, plants with just 5 percent oil would produce an extra 123 gallons of biodiesel per acre than soybeans and 350 more gallons of ethanol per acre than corn.

-Published in phys.org.  See original article link here.

Genetically engineered microbes make their own fertilizer, could feed the world’s poorest

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Industrial fertilizers help feed billions of people every year, but they remain beyond the reach of many of the world’s poorest farmers. Now, researchers have engineered microbes that, when added to soil, make fertilizer on demand, producing plants that grow 1.5 times larger than crops not exposed to the bugs or other synthetic fertilizers. The advance, reported here this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, could help farmers in the poorest parts of the world increase their crop yields and combat chronic malnutrition.

A key component of fertilizer is nitrogen, an element essential for building everything from DNA to proteins. Nitrogen is all around us, comprising 80% of the air we breathe. But that nitrogen is inert, bound up in molecules that plants and people can’t access. Some microbes have evolved proteins called nitrogenases that can split apart nitrogen molecules in the air and weld that nitrogen to hydrogen to make ammonia and other compounds that plants can absorb to get their nitrogen.

The industrial process for making fertilizer, invented more than a century ago by a pair of German chemists—Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch—carries out that same molecular knitting. But the Haber-Bosch process, as it’s now known, necessitates high pressures and temperatures to work. It also requires a source of molecular hydrogen (H2)—typically methane—which is the chief component of natural gas. Methane itself isn’t terribly expensive. But the need to build massive chemical plants to convert methane and nitrogen into ammonia, as well as the massive infrastructure needed to distribute it, prevents many poor countries from easy access to fertilizer.

A few years ago, researchers led by Harvard University chemist Daniel Nocera devised what they call an artificial leaf that uses a semiconductor combined with two different catalysts to capture sunlight and use that harvested energy to split water molecules (H2O) into H2 and oxygen (O2). At the time, Nocera’s group focused on using the captured hydrogen as a chemical fuel, which can either be burned directly or run through a device called a fuel cell to produce electricity. But last year, Nocera reported that his team had engineered bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha to feed on the H2 and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and combine them to make hydrocarbon fuels. The next step, says Nocera, was to broaden the scope of their work by engineering another type of bacterium to take nitrogen out of the air to make fertilizer.

Nocera and his colleagues turned to a microbe called Xanthobacter autotrophicus, which naturally harbors a nitrogenase enzyme. But they still needed a way to provide the bugs with a source of H2 to make ammonia. So they genetically engineered Xanthobacter, giving them an enzyme called a hydrogenase, which allows them to feed on H2 to make a form of cellular energy called ATP. They then use that ATP, additional H2, and CO2 from the air to synthesize a type of bioplastic called polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB, which they can store in their bodies.

This is where the microbes’ nitrogenase enzyme kicks in. The bacteria harvest H2 from their PHB store and use their nitrogenase to combine it with nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, the starting material for fertilizer. It doesn’t just work in the lab: Nocera reported yesterday at the meeting that when he and his colleagues put their engineered Xanthobacter in solution and used that solution to water radish crops, the vegetables grew 150% larger than controls not given either the bugs or other fertilizers.

Leif Hammarström, a chemist at Uppsala University in Sweden who also works on making fuels from solar energy, says he was impressed with the work. Making ammonia without using an industrial process “is a very challenging chemistry,” he says. “This is a good approach.” It may even be one that could help many of the world’s poor. Nocera says Harvard has licensed the intellectual property for the new technology to the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, India, which is working to scale up the technology for commercial use around the globe.

-Written by Robert F. Service in Sciencemag.org.  See original article link here.

Borlaug’s dream is being realized

Dr. Norman Borlaug, whose scientific research sparked a “green revolution” in agriculture that saved millions of lives, was prescient.

Groundbreaking research that he envisioned nearly 50 years ago is finally coming to fruition as scientists announce new advances in their efforts to develop plants that can create their own sources of fertilizer.

Borlaug alluded to this work in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 1970 in recognition of a life dedicated to feeding the world’s hungry population:

In my dream I see green, vigorous, high-yielding fields of wheat, rice, maize, sorghums, and millets, which are obtaining, free of expense, 100 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare from nodule-forming, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These mutant strains of Rhizobium cerealis were developed in 1990 by a massive mutation breeding program with strains of Rhizobium sp. obtained from roots of legumes and other nodule-bearing plants. This scientific discovery has revolutionized agricultural production for the hundreds of millions of humble farmers throughout the world; for they now receive much of the needed fertilizer for their crops directly from these little wondrous microbes that are taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it without cost in the roots of cereals, from which it is transformed into grain…

Then I wake up and become disillusioned to find that mutation genetics programs are still engaged mostly in such minutiae as putting beards on wheat plants and taking off the hairs.

If we are to capitalize fully on the past biological accomplishments and realize the prospective accomplishments, as exemplified in my dream, there must be far greater investments in research and education in the future than in the past.

Investments have been made into that type of research in recent years, and the results are very promising.

In this video by Robert Hazen of the Alliance for Science, scientists from the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) project discuss how they are using genetic engineering to transfer the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes (peas and beans) into cereal crops. Their work could help small-holder farmers in Africa and elsewhere realize higher yields, without the use of expensive fertilizers. It could also reduce the world’s overall use of chemical nitrogen fertilizers, which contribute substantially to both carbon emissions and environmental pollution.

Harvard University researcher Daniel Nocera is taking a different approach. He and his team presented their work on “a ‘bionic’ leaf that uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertilizer in the very soil where crops are grown” at an April 3 session of the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), according to an ACS press release.

As the release noted:

For this application, Nocera’s team has designed a system in which Xanthobacter bacteria fix hydrogen from the artificial leaf and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make a bioplastic that the bacteria store inside themselves as fuel.

“I can then put the bug in the soil because it has already used the sunlight to make the bioplastic,” Nocera says. “Then the bug pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic, which is basically stored hydrogen, to drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilizing crops.”

Nocera’s lab has analyzed the amount of ammonia the system produces. But the real proof is in the radishes. The researchers have used their approach to grow five crop cycles. The vegetables receiving the bionic-leaf-derived fertilizer weigh 150 percent more than the control crops. The next step, Nocera says, is to boost throughput so that one day, farmers in India or sub-Saharan Africa can produce their own fertilizer.

Nocera also shared his work at a press conference that can be viewed here.

Research by ENSA scientists and Nocera is helping to make Borlaug’s dream a reality. Yet advancements in agricultural science continue to meet resistance from groups that oppose the use of modern technology to address food production challenges, just as they did in Borlaug’s time.

Borlaug addressed this dynamic in his acceptance speech, and his words remain true today: 

Some critics have said that the green revolution has created more problems than it has solved. This I cannot accept, for I believe it is far better for mankind to be struggling with new problems caused by abundance rather than with the old problem of famine. 

For the underprivileged billions in the forgotten world, hunger has been a constant companion, and starvation has all too often lurked in the nearby shadows. To millions of these unfortunates, who have long lived in despair, the green revolution seems like a miracle that has generated new hope for the future.

I want to reiterate emphatically that there now are available materials and techniques of great potential value for expanding the green revolution into additional fields of agriculture. But to convert these potential values into actual values requires scientific and organizational leadership. Where are those leaders? Where are the leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership, and the persistent determination to convert the potential benefactions into real benefactions for mankind in general and for the hungry in particular? There are not enough of them now; therefore we must try to identify and develop them in our educational systems and we must utilize them in our campaigns for food production. 

The green revolution is a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into Utopia. None are more keenly aware of its limitations than those who started it and fought for its success. But there has been solid accomplishment, as I have already shown by concrete examples. I have also tried to indicate the various opportunities for capitalizing more fully on the new materials that were produced and the new methods that were devised. And, above all, I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that further progress depends on intelligent, integrated, and persistent effort by government leaders, statesmen, tradesmen, scientists, educators, and communication agencies, including the press, radio, and television.

-Written by Joan Conrow and published in Cornell University Alliance for Science Global Network website.  See original article link here.

Borlaug’s dream is being realized

Dr. Norman Borlaug, whose scientific research sparked a “green revolution” in agriculture that saved millions of lives, was prescient.

Groundbreaking research that he envisioned nearly 50 years ago is finally coming to fruition as scientists announce new advances in their efforts to develop plants that can create their own sources of fertilizer.

Borlaug alluded to this work in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 1970 in recognition of a life dedicated to feeding the world’s hungry population:

In my dream I see green, vigorous, high-yielding fields of wheat, rice, maize, sorghums, and millets, which are obtaining, free of expense, 100 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare from nodule-forming, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These mutant strains of Rhizobium cerealis were developed in 1990 by a massive mutation breeding program with strains of Rhizobium sp. obtained from roots of legumes and other nodule-bearing plants. This scientific discovery has revolutionized agricultural production for the hundreds of millions of humble farmers throughout the world; for they now receive much of the needed fertilizer for their crops directly from these little wondrous microbes that are taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it without cost in the roots of cereals, from which it is transformed into grain…

Then I wake up and become disillusioned to find that mutation genetics programs are still engaged mostly in such minutiae as putting beards on wheat plants and taking off the hairs.

If we are to capitalize fully on the past biological accomplishments and realize the prospective accomplishments, as exemplified in my dream, there must be far greater investments in research and education in the future than in the past.

Investments have been made into that type of research in recent years, and the results are very promising.

In this video by Robert Hazen of the Alliance for Science, scientists from the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) project discuss how they are using genetic engineering to transfer the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes (peas and beans) into cereal crops. Their work could help small-holder farmers in Africa and elsewhere realize higher yields, without the use of expensive fertilizers. It could also reduce the world’s overall use of chemical nitrogen fertilizers, which contribute substantially to both carbon emissions and environmental pollution.

Harvard University researcher Daniel Nocera is taking a different approach. He and his team presented their work on “a ‘bionic’ leaf that uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertilizer in the very soil where crops are grown” at an April 3 session of the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), according to an ACS press release.

As the release noted:

For this application, Nocera’s team has designed a system in which Xanthobacter bacteria fix hydrogen from the artificial leaf and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make a bioplastic that the bacteria store inside themselves as fuel.

“I can then put the bug in the soil because it has already used the sunlight to make the bioplastic,” Nocera says. “Then the bug pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic, which is basically stored hydrogen, to drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilizing crops.”

Nocera’s lab has analyzed the amount of ammonia the system produces. But the real proof is in the radishes. The researchers have used their approach to grow five crop cycles. The vegetables receiving the bionic-leaf-derived fertilizer weigh 150 percent more than the control crops. The next step, Nocera says, is to boost throughput so that one day, farmers in India or sub-Saharan Africa can produce their own fertilizer.

Nocera also shared his work at a press conference that can be viewed here.

Research by ENSA scientists and Nocera is helping to make Borlaug’s dream a reality. Yet advancements in agricultural science continue to meet resistance from groups that oppose the use of modern technology to address food production challenges, just as they did in Borlaug’s time.

Borlaug addressed this dynamic in his acceptance speech, and his words remain true today: 

Some critics have said that the green revolution has created more problems than it has solved. This I cannot accept, for I believe it is far better for mankind to be struggling with new problems caused by abundance rather than with the old problem of famine. 

For the underprivileged billions in the forgotten world, hunger has been a constant companion, and starvation has all too often lurked in the nearby shadows. To millions of these unfortunates, who have long lived in despair, the green revolution seems like a miracle that has generated new hope for the future.

I want to reiterate emphatically that there now are available materials and techniques of great potential value for expanding the green revolution into additional fields of agriculture. But to convert these potential values into actual values requires scientific and organizational leadership. Where are those leaders? Where are the leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership, and the persistent determination to convert the potential benefactions into real benefactions for mankind in general and for the hungry in particular? There are not enough of them now; therefore we must try to identify and develop them in our educational systems and we must utilize them in our campaigns for food production. 

The green revolution is a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into Utopia. None are more keenly aware of its limitations than those who started it and fought for its success. But there has been solid accomplishment, as I have already shown by concrete examples. I have also tried to indicate the various opportunities for capitalizing more fully on the new materials that were produced and the new methods that were devised. And, above all, I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that further progress depends on intelligent, integrated, and persistent effort by government leaders, statesmen, tradesmen, scientists, educators, and communication agencies, including the press, radio, and television.

-Written by Joan Conrow in Cornell Alliance for Science.  See original article link here.

African trading bloc ready to embrace transgenic products

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) member countries on Wednesday expressed their readiness for the development and importation of genetically modified organism (GMO) products in the region.

Getachew Belay, COMESA Senior Biotechnology Policy Advisor, said the Africa’s largest trading bloc has experts and laboratories for testing GMOs.

“The region has trained scientists and some are currently working in other continents due to lack of developed systems in biotechnology development,” Belay told Xinhua in Nairobi on Wednesday.

He said the 19-member bloc has taken biotechnology seriously by putting down infrastructures as per the recommendations of the Cartagena protocol.

The countries are currently cooperating in creating an enabling environment for external, cross-border and domestic investment, including the joint promotion of research and adaptation of science and technology for development.

Belay said COMESA provides a technical opinion about the biosafety of GMOs seeking commercial status in the COMESA region, which can be used by individual countries to make decisions within their own biosafety regulatory frameworks, and also a harmonized mechanism for decision-making involving commercial planting, trade of GMOs and food aid with GM content in the COMESA region.

He noted that COMESA has helped member states share and build capacity to conduct risk assessment and management. It also established interactive regional information-sharing mechanism on biosafety and biotechnology issues.

Margaret Karembu, Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), said whereas several countries are making profits from biotechnology, African countries are still lagging behind due to unpredictable political and policy environment in supporting biotechnology research.

“Costly regulatory processes coupled with miscommunication of the technology are to blame for Africa’s slow uptake of the technology,” she noted.

Sudan is the only country in the region that is currently growing GMO. It has 100,000 acres under such crops since 2012 when the technology was introduced. Currently 97 percent of farmers are growing the GMO variety.

Kenya, Swaziland, Uganda and Malawi are at confined field trial stages for Bt. cotton, Bt. maize, virus-resistant cassava and sweet potatoes, bacterial-wilt-resistant banana and drought-tolerant water-efficient maize.

-Written by Peter Mutai (Xinhua, Nairobi) in Coastweek.com.  See original article link here.