Plant breeding without the madness (4/2/2008)

1.Sane Cow Millet
2.The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech

1.Sane Cow Millet
A plant breeding tech without the risks
Debarshi Dasgupta
Outlook India (magazine), Feb 11 2008

Where The Sun Shines...

*MAB is seen as an alternative to GM technology. It involves crossbreeding with genes from related species.

*Unlike GM crops, MAB varieties do not raise health concerns as they don't involve introduction of foreign genes *MAB varieties in the market now include corn, pearl millet. Varieties of rice, wheat and mustard next on anvil.


At a time when there are serious concerns about genetically modified (GM) food, another plant breeding technology has evolved which could help create crops with more nutritive value and better pest resistance. And it does this minus the side-effects of GM crops which have come in for some flak. Last month, a new variety of maize—Vivek QPM 9—was commercially released from Vivekananda Parvatiya Krishi Anusandhan Sansthan (VPKAS), Almora, that uses what is called marker assisted breeding (MAB).

This involves genetic screening of different varieties of a plant to identify the specific gene responsible for a desired trait. It is then crossed with a related species. On the other hand, transgenic or GM crops are produced by the introduction of alien genes, such as those from microbes and human breast milk. Such modification has raised concerns about unpredictable effects on health.

In Almora, scientists crossbred a high-protein gene from the QPM corn variety with the indigenous Vivek 9. The resultant, improved variety now has a protein content that approaches milk in terms of quality. 'MAB can to a good extent supplement transgenic technology. For instance, bacterial blight in rice can also be fought with MAB,' says P.K. Agarwal, principal scientist at VPKAS.

The technology has one limitation: the required trait has to be available with a related species of the plant variety sought to be modified. This, at the same time, is also an advantage. Since the introduced gene belongs to a related species, there are no transgenic concerns.

MAB technology has taken a while to deliver results as required genetic traits have to be first identified and then isolated. This ongoing process is known as genome mapping. MAB's potential is bound to be enhanced as agri scientists do a more complete job of such mapping. 'It is a very promising technology. Our main plant breeding thrust will be on MAB,' says R.R. Sinha, an advisor with the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

Some other crops being engineered under DBT's MAB plan are rice, wheat, chickpea, linseed, mustard and groundnut. The private sector, Sinha says, overlooked the MAB technique initially amidst the hype built around GM crops, 'but they too are now switching over now'.

The maize variety just released is the first instance of an MAB crop being released through the network of Indian Council of Agricultural Research institutes. Around two years ago, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Haryana Agricultural University jointly released a MAB variety of pearl millet resistant to downy mildew, a devastating fungal disease. The response has been encouraging. From 30 thousand hectares in 2006, the farmed area using this improved variety of pearl millet is expected to touch five lakh hectares in 2008. Tom Hash, a principal scientist at ICRISAT, says 'MAB is likely to be much more popular than transgenics as these varieties do not require the additional tests for food safety that GM crops require,' he says.

But Suman Sahai, president of Gene Campaign, which backs sustainable agriculture, feels conventional breeding, despite 'delivering consistently', is being ignored for other techniques. 'There are few scientists now trained in simple plant breeding and taxonomy that helps them identify, classify plants,' she concludes.Even so, MAB offers a positive alternative to extremes.


2.The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech [extracts]

GM Debate - Moving Towards A Solution

'The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting and they are achievable with existing technologies. Within the wheat plant we have a vast reservoir of genes. We also have the advanced analytical equipment necessary to pinpoint the molecular characteristics we need. And the marker-assisted systems to reliably build these characteristics into high output varieties through conventional plant breeding.... Our real challenge today is to work closely with the food industry and interest groups....'

Jeff Cox, general manager for Monsanto Northern Europe Farmers Weekly (UK), 30 Aug 2002


November 2002

Back in 1998 nlpwessex relayed through its GM news bulletin service a remarkable article in Farmers Weekly which reported on the annual meeting of the British Association For The Advancement Of Science. The title of the article was 'NON-GM FUTURE IS MAPPED OUT' based on a paper presented by Professor Denis Murphy, head of the Brassicas and Oilseeds Department at the John Innes Centre, Europe's leading ag-biotech laboratory.

The article identified the enormous potential that resides in the non-gm aspects of modern biotechnology. The most promising area is generally referred to as 'marker assisted selection' (MAS), sometimes more loosely known as 'genomics'.

Since that time a series of endorsements for MAS technology - highlighting its advantages over the GM approach to plant breeding - have come from a diverse range of high profile sources.

As illustrated in the article below from Farmers Weekly 30 August 2002, Jeff Cox, Monsanto's general manager for Northern Europe, has now joined the growing chorus of professionals who are extolling the promise of this technology for the future of modern plant breeding.

What is especially interesting about Mr Cox's article is that his enthusiasm for the technology is proferred without any reference - either actual or implied - to genetically modified plant breeding programmes. This absolute omission is not something we have encountered before in a Monsanto penned article on modern plant breeding.

We would like to believe that this represents the beginning of a recognition by the biotechnology sector (which currently is in deep finacial trouble across the globe according to the October edition of the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology) that if it wishes to prosper it has to pursue those technologies which are acceptable to society as a whole. MAS is one of those technologies. It also happens to be the most useful.

In his article for Farmers Weekly, Mr Cox describes the possiblities offered by MAS as being 'as endless as they are exciting'.

However, this enthusiasm is not confined to the commercial sector. As it happens the September 2002 edition of 'ARIA' ( the newsletter of the UK's Arable Reseach Institute Association ) highlights the work being done in conjunction with Syngenta on developing drought tolerance in sugar beet using MAS (this is a much more important area of plant breeding than the relatively trivial, and increasingly self-defeating, issue of herbicide resistance - the principal output to date of GM crop technology which many consider global agriculture can easily live without).

Current MAS drought resistance work at ARIA's Broom's Barn research station is 'directed towards locating molecular markers that identify regions in the chromosomes that control drought resistance. With marker assisted selection, environmental conditions during the breeding process are not important. Only at the final stages of variety development does the material need to be tested in the field under drought conditions.... drought tolerance is determined by the combination of many morpho-physilogical traits, and each trait is probably determined by several genes...'.

The especial significance of MAS in this area is confirmed by the head of global plant breeding at Monsanto who states in an article entitled 'Wheat Future is in Bio-Tech Not GM' published in Farmers Weekly 25 February 2000 : 'It's a numbers game and ultimately [non-GM] biotech offers the greatest potential..... Aligning 20 segments of desired genetic material using conventional breeding would take a one-in-a-trillion chance. Using molecular markers we can achieve it in three cycles.' By contrast he confirms that GM technology is not adept at dealing with complex genetic interactions like these.

Later reports by Monsanto indicate that MAS can be expected to increase wheat yields (for example) at more than double the rate previously forecast by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation without the need to resort to genetically engineered strains. Other developments reported in the British farming press in relation to oilseed rape also indicate that similar advances can be expected in non-cereal crop categories.

Recognition of the shift in emphasis appears to be growing. As the editor of nlpwessex's GM news service pointed out in an interview on BBC Radio 4's Food Programme earlier this year: 'I actually believe that we’re going to move on to a more sophisticated, more appropriate, more integrated form of genetics, based on applying gene mapping to conventional plant breeding, which clearly eminent voices in the biotechnology industry consider have great potential, including as it happens the head of plant breeding at Monsanto. So I regard genetically engineered technology as an interim technology, I think it’s going to become yesterday’s technology, and if we have a good debate we have a reasonable chance of finding the best solutions to creating a viable and sustainable agriculture in the future.'

The immediate response from fellow studio guest and leading pro-GM advocate, Professor Vivian Moses of University College London and bio-industry funded CropGen, was at least partial agreement.

With so much available under MAS is it not time to put GM products to one side so that all participants in the current biotechnology debate can get on with doing something more constructive (like focusing on more critical issues in world agriculture such as sustainable soil and water management where the long term productivity gains to society for each dollar invested are likely to be far greater than any overall contribution from genetic engineering )?

As the latest article on this subject from Farmers Weekly seems to imply, the industry may be preparing itself to make a seismic shift away from the GM paradigm - at least in Europe. This would be particularly so if Monsanto's newly stated desire to 'work closely with... interest groups' is taken at face value. If this prudent step is taken then we can expect ag-biotech share prices to significantly improve as public opposition to the sector falls away and the unfortunate and essentially unhelpful GM diversion reaches its long overdue expiry date.

Or to put it in the words of Professor Bob Goodman, former head of research and development at Calgene: 'From a scientific perspective, the public argument about genetically-modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past. The science has moved on and we're now in the genomics era.'



'In the case of agbiotech, the new technologies are not necessarily superior to existing crop breeding methods, but they can extend their range and hold out new possibilities for crop production, many of which are especially relevant to developing countries. Moreover, many agbiotech methods have nothing to do with gene transfer ('genetic engineering') but are more akin to the kinds of DNA fingerprinting that are now in such common use in forensic science and medical diagnostics. Even today, by far the most effective use of agbiotech, and one with which I have been involved in Southeast Asia, is MAS, or marker-assisted selection. Here, molecular markers and other high-tech tools are used to speed up and widen the scope of crop breeding around the world but no GM methods are involved.'
Denis J Murphy, Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Glamorgan, Wales Agricultural Biotechnology: Monster, Marvel, or just Misunderstood?
Public Service Review - Devolved Government, November 2006

'Turning on a gene found in wheat could boost levels of protein, iron and zinc, scientists have discovered. The gene occurs naturally in wheat, but has largely been silenced during the evolution of domestic varieties. Researchers found evidence that turning it back on could raise levels of the nutrients in wheat grains. Writing in the journal Science, they suggest that new varieties with a fully functioning gene can be created through cross-breeding with wild wheat....The UC Davis team is already making such varieties, not by genetic engineering but through crossing domesticated wheat plants with wild relatives. The key is a technology called Marker Assisted Selection (MAS). This allows scientists to select which plants to cross using genetic information, rather than simply choosing them by their attributes, as farmers have done throughout the history of agriculture.'
Wheat's lost gene helps nutrition
BBC Online, 24 November 2006

'In a low-slung building amid farm fields, agriculture's second biotechnology revolution is, according to this story, dawning.The story describes how rows of robotic devices are deciphering the DNA in slices of thousands of corn plants sent daily from as far away as Chile and Hawaii. Scientists here search the results for subtle genetic differences that explain why a particular plant is better than others at tolerating cold, repelling insects, surviving drought or making more seed. Armed with this knowledge, crop breeders can create better corn. But not by gene-splicing, the method that has stirred resistance, especially in Europe, to crops spiked with DNA from other organisms. The new technology usesm old-fashioned selective breeding -- finding plants with desirable traits and mating them. Except that in this case, selective breeding is turbocharged. Thanks to the decoded genetic blueprints, seed producers can know with precision which plants carry a desired trait and which genes cause it. Just as important, once they've planted seeds from such a plant, they can learn quickly through gene tests whether its offspring sprouting in a test field have inherited the trait. George Kotch, research director of Syngenta AG's North American vegetable seeds business, was quoted as saying, 'The public is lukewarm on GMO products. Now we have a technology that doesn't have an image problem.' Using it, Syngenta, the big Swiss biotech company that operates the Iowa laboratory, is developing drought-resistant corn, which someday could open up more of the Great Plains to the crop. DuPont Co.'s Pioneer Hi-Bred unit is developing corn that resists a Midwestern bane called Anthracnose stalk rot. Monsanto Co. has developed soybeans whose oil stands up to repeated reheating, as in fast-food restaurants, without having to be hydrogenated, which creates artery-clogging trans fats.'
Seed firms bolster crops without GM
Wall St Journal, 31 October 2006

'Scientists, faced with the major challenge of boosting productivity of staple crops for ensuring world’s food and nutritional security, are now looking at effectively deploying biotechnological tools to develop crops which would not be transgenics or genetically modified (GM) ones. Transgenics or GM crops, they say, have generated much controversy across the globe. It has to pass through rigorous regulatory process before commercial release and hence it’s time consuming. Rather the better option would be to deploy biotechnological tools like marker-aided selection.... 'Scientists are exploring the possibilities of deploying modern biotech tools for developing high yielding crops with high nutrition content,' director-general of the International Rice Research Institute Robert S Zeigler says. 'We have effective biotechnological tools at our disposal such as improved rice crops which would not be transgenic crops. Development of transgenic crop is only one of the many options.'

Hiking rice yield, biotechnology to the rescue Scientists say transgenics or genetically modified crops cumbersome, biotech tools can boost harvest of non-GM crops Indian Express, 27 October 2006

'MAS technology is being looked at with increasing interest within the European Union, where public opposition to GM food has remained resolute. In a recent speech, Stavros Dimas, the EU's environment commissioner, noted that 'MAS technology is attracting considerable attention' and said that the EU 'should not ignore the use of 'upgraded' conventional varieties as an alternative to GM crops'.... If properly used as part of a much larger systemic and holistic approach to sustainable agricultural development, MAS technology could be the right technology at the right time in history.''
This crop revolution may succeed where GM failed
Guardian, 26 October 2006

'The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has drawn up an action plan for boosting rice production, keeping in view the likely increase in global demand by 50% by the year 2050. It has also come out with a new vision statement and strategic plan for 2007-15 with a view to help fulfill the UN millenium development goals. Speaking to FE, IRRI director-general, Robert S Zeigler said, 'Application of biotechnology is of course an option, but this does not necessarily mean development of GM rice. Biotechnology has larger areas of applications like marker-assisted selections, use of tools of genomics. The development of traits may not require a transgene.' Zeigler said IRRI has already developed a submergence tolerent rice called Swarna and this variety would soon be given to national research agencies after trials. He admitted a major technological breakthrough in rice productivity would take at least 10 years. The major technological breakthrough, according to him, means increasing the photosynthesis of rice (C3 crop) to the level of of that in maize, sugarcane and sorghum (C4 crop). The increase in photosynthesis power in rice would result in increased productivity. He also admitted less possibility of an substaintial increase in area under rice. Therefore as an alternative option he suggested development of high yielding varieties suited for rainfed areas, salinty, flodd and drought resistant varieties and extension of irrigation facilities to rainfed areas. Zeigler came down upon attempts to patent research tool-kits and processes. He said that only the plant product may be patented.'
‘Biotech is more than GM crop’
Financial Express (India), 10 October 2006

'A high-yielding rice plant which does not fall over in bad weather has been created by a team of researchers. Their approach could help plant breeders develop more productive cultivars of rice –the crop that provides nearly a quarter of the world's calories - without the need to use genetic modification technology. Breeding short, sturdy and high yield cereal crops – a hallmark of the 'Green Revolution' in the 1960s – has often been credited with saving the world from starvation. And in recent years, plant biologists have begun to unravel the genetics behind these salvation cultivars, with hope to improve them further - and faster. 'Generally speaking, it takes over 10 years to produce a new variety by conventional selective breeding. However, if we can use molecular markers linked with the gene controlling the trait, we can dramatically reduce time and laborious human work,' says Makoto Matsuoka at Nagoya University, Japan, one of the team. The genes uncovered to date have been those referred to as 'dwarf' genes, which are linked to growth hormone pathways. Stubbier plants are less likely to topple over in bad weather and often devote their remaining energy into grain production.'
Bumper rice plant created by novel approach
New Scientist, 23 June 2005


Back to the Archive