GM poplars to grow next door: Researchers at the Ghent, Belgium–based Flanders Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) have gained ground in a long-running battle over the planting of genetically modified (GM) poplar trees by applying for permits to plant the trees across the border. The Belgian government initially refused VIB’s application to run field trials on home turf, but now the Dutch government, which has already issued a ‘positive opinion’, may grant them permission. The transgenic poplars are deficient in the enzyme cinnamoyl-CoA reductase, which reduces the lignin content making them more suitable for bioethanol production, although so far their benefits have only been demonstrated in the lab. The VIB had hoped for a green light from the Belgian Biosafety Council to run the trials closer to its research facilities and pilot-scale biorefinery. Instead, researchers will be forced to make regular trips to neighboring Holland to monitor and harvest the trees. Willy De Greef, secretary general of EuropaBio, the Brussels based association for European bioindustry, says, “VIB is a public institute, which doesn’t have the resources of a multinational. I don’t even dare to think about what it does to their annual research budget.” He says if European laws governing the planting of GM field trials were more consistently adhered to across member states, such situations wouldn’t arise. A final decision from the Dutch government is due in spring 2009. Nature biotechnology volume 27 number 2 february 2009
Cuba’s first GM corn Cuba will be planting its first genetically modified (GM) corn to help reduce its dependence on costly food imports. The Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) of Havana will begin the experimental plantation of 125 acres with the GM corn, provisionally called FR-Bt1. This corn is currently undergoing regulatory approval for its environmental release. “Cuban rules are very strict… but in Cuba there is a political will for employing the technology,” explains Carlos Borroto, deputy director of the state-run center, and head of the Cuban National Program of Agricultural Biotechnology. The FR-Bt1, whose technical details cannot be revealed due to confidentiality clauses in the registration process, is aimed at animal feed and will be used exclusively in Cuba. The GM crop is engineered to resist the country’s main pest: the lepidopteron Spodoptera frugiperda. The FRBt1 corn was developed by a large CIGB team, led by Camilo Ayra, in collaboration with other research bodies. The entire project was financed with public funds from the Cuban Council of State. “Because the corn has shown an elevated level of multiplication, some 2.5 acres could produce enough seeds to plant 300 acres,” says Borroto. Although the use of GM organisms is debated in Cuba, public perception is mostly positive because these developments do not seek commercial gain but the nation’s food sufficiency. The outcome of these field trials is expected for April 2009. volume 27 number 2 February 2009 nature biotechnology
13.3 million farmers cultivate GM crops Last year (2008) 13.3 million farmers in 25 countries planted transgenic crops, over 90% of them in developing nations. It was also the year the second billionth acre of transgenic crop was planted—only 3 years after the first billionth acre was achieved. In Canada and the US, Monsanto (St. Louis) successfully introduced a new biotech crop, glyphosate-resistant sugar beet. Latin America, India and China continued to rapidly adopt GM varieties; 7 of 27 European Union countries cultivated the only transgenic crop approved there (Bt maize); France illegally froze its commercial plantings. Stacked traits continue to rise in popularity.
Tear-free onions Ever since the Flavr Savr debacle in which buyers roundly rejected a tomato modified to extend shelf-life, few have braved the consumer market. Perhaps the tearless onion developed by researchers in New Zealand will fare better. In collaboration with industrial partners House Foods Corporation, of Osaka, Japan, scientists at Crop & Food Research in Christchurch, New Zealand, have produced a tearless onion by silencing the gene that produces the lachrymatory factor synthase–the enzyme that makes people cry over the chopping board. The modified onions look and taste like the ordinary variety but, so far, have not induced a single case of tearing when crushed. Crop & Food Research is considering commercialization, though that is at least ten years away. “We have always thought that where there are clear benefits to the consumer, there will be better acceptance of this style of biotechnology,’ says Crop and Food Research scientist Colin Eady. Public acceptance of genetically modified foods could also be boosted by using RNAi technology to eliminate food allergens. An allergy-free peanut variety has been developed by researchers at Alabama A & M University, who have used RNAi technology to lower the levels of a peanut allergen, Ara h2. “There is wide potential for this technology,” says Eady, who predicts it will be applied to other crops in the future. NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY VOLUME 26 NUMBER 4 APRIL 2008
Europe imports GM soy The European Commission has authorized imports of Bayer CropScience’s genetically modified (GM) soybean, an approval that will help ease a shortage of animal feed (Nat. Biotechnol. 25, 1065–1066, 2007) and bolster commercial ties with major GM crop-growing countries such as the US, Canada and Argentina. The A2704-12 soybean produced by the Mannheim, Germany–based company, engineered to resist Liberty, a glufosinate herbicide, is the first soybean approval in ten years. The decision announced in September is only a partial victory for the biotech industry, as it does not mark a change of heart about GM crops on the part of the European government but rather is a default approval. EU law allows for ‘rubber stamp’ approvals when countries cannot agree on an application; this one for A2704-12 follows inconclusive talks among EU farm ministers in May. “We are delighted whenever the EU system approves one of our member’s products,” says Willy deGreef, secretary general of EuropaBio. “It is clear that, with a shortfall of 30 to 40 million tonnes a year, the EU needs to import very large amounts of soybean. However, why do we need this incentive from the agricultural sector when these soybeans, and other GM products in the pipeline, have already had a positive opinion from European food safety authorities?” Europe’s feed and livestock manufacturing industries are keen to see more GM soy imports approved as they rely on soy products as a high-quality protein source. In September, EU ministers clashed over authorizing imports of Monsanto’s second-generation GM product MON 89799 resistant to Roundup Ready herbicides for use in feed.
Enrichment of tomato fruit with health-promoting anthocyanins by expression of select transcription factors NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY VOLUME 26 NUMBER 11 NOVEMBER 2008 Dietary consumption of anthocyanins, a class of pigments produced by higher plants, has been associated with protection against a broad range of human diseases. However, anthocyanin levels in the most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables may be inadequate to confer optimal benefits. When we expressed two transcription factors from snapdragon in tomato, the fruit of the plants accumulated anthocyanins at levels substantially higher than previously reported for efforts to engineer anthocyanin accumulation in tomato and at concentrations comparable to the anthocyanin levels found in blackberries and blueberries. Expression of the two transgenes enhanced the hydrophilic antioxidant capacity of tomato fruit threefold and resulted in fruit with intense purple coloration in both peel and flesh. In a pilot test, cancer-susceptible Trp53–/– mice fed a diet supplemented with the high-anthocyanin tomatoes showed a significant extension of life span.
Figure 1 Fruit-specific phenotypes of T1 generation tomatoes (cv. MicroTom) expressing both Del and Ros1 under the control of the E8 promoter. (a) Map of T-DNA region of the binary vector used for transformation. LB, left T-DNA border region; RB, right T-DNA border region; Kanr, nptII gene conferring kanamycin resistance under the control of the nos promoter; cmv3¢, terminator region of cauliflower mosaic virus. (b) Phenotypic analysis of wild-type (upper row), Del/Ros1C (middle) and Del/Ros1N (lower) tomato fruit harvested at the green (left column), breaker (middle) and red (right) ripening stages. (c) Del/Ros1N tomato plant showing fruit at different stages of ripening. (d) Whole and cross-section of ripe wild-type and Del/Ros1N tomato fruit.