The story of GM oranges begins in pretty much the same way that every other GM story begins nowadays: an unstoppable disease. The fastest developments all start with a fungus or virus or bacteria that is wiping out a major crop. This time, it’s Huanglongbing or citrus greening as caused by Candidatus Liberibacter, a bacterium carried by psyllids (like aphids, but… not).
In 2005 this long-dreaded disease reached the citrus orchards of Florida, sparking a state-wide campaign of insecticide spraying and preventative chopping down of trees. The problem is that, being spread by a parasite, keeping infected trees away from each other isn’t enough. Just like how people can’t be protected from malaria just by keeping them away from malarial patients, as long as psyllids can make it from infected trees to uninfected trees the disease continues to spread.
Whenever a devestating disease appears, the first port of call is to find a source of immunity. Ug99 is a name known and feared by people in my line of business: a variety of wheat stem rust (originating in Uganda in 1999 – go figure) that wiped out huge parts of the African wheat harvest. When it began rampaging across Africa and Europe in 2006 the first port of call was to find a naturally resistant variety of wheat that could be used to breed with other elite cultivars. A variety of einkorn wheat (a diploid wheat) from Turkey was found to contain a gene Sr35 that conferred resistance. (Well, sort of. Technically they found a QTL. And then the gene earlier this year. I’ll talk about that another time.)
Only there was no resistant variety of citrus tree to be found anywhere. The only option it seemed was to search further afield: Early contenders included one from a bacteriophage (i.e. a virus that kills bacteria), but concerns that people would react more strongly to an organism modified with genes from a virus put that one to bed. Similar fears about a well-performing tree with a gene from pig put that one on the back burner too. An alternative was a gene from spinach, and in 2010 this was finally trialled.
Sunday’s New York Times carried this lovely piece about the fight to win both regulatory approval and consumer acceptance of the new GM orange trees, which will hopefully be available for juice production in the next 5 years.
C Saintenac, W Zhang, A Salcedo et al (2013) Science
“Identification of Wheat Gene Sr35That Confers Resistance to Ug99 Stem Rust Race Group”
Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1239022
Posted in Biology, Genetics, Science
Tagged biology, food science, genetics, GM, GMOs, oranges, science, Ug99, wheat stem rust
Today could well be a day for GM blogging I feel. As a start, GM giant Monsanto has launched a new website called GMO Answers.
GMO Answers is an initiative committed to responding to your questions about how food is grown. Its goal is to make information about GMOs in food and agriculture easier to access and understand.
I’m skeptical about how far they’ll get with this. I imagine it’s going to take a lot of moderation and they’ll be fielding a lot of angry comments from the anti-GM brigade, but I really hope there’ll be the chance for some sensible dialogue on there as well.
In a move surprising to nobody, Monsanto (the agri-super-giant responsible for ‘Roundup Ready’ maize and soy) has pulled its GM research out of Europe for the time being, citing the legislation that makes it next-to-impossible to get anything approved on this side of the pond. This comes not long after BASF Plant Science, the German agri-business responsible for one of two GM crops grown in the EU (Amflora high-starch potato) moved its base to the US due to anti-GM feeling in the EU.
The path from developing a new crop to getting it approved in Europe involves regulation by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), followed by a proposal by the European Commission and subsequent voting by all of the EU member states. Although the EFSA has approved eight crops in the past decade, the European Commission hasn’t allowed them to be commerically grown, due to anti-GM feeling in some of the member states. Among the crops still waiting to be approved are three maize cultivars, and a soy bean, which are all produced by Monsanto. Three of these are to be abandoned – Monsanto will only continue to pursue one variety of GM maize (MON810), which is already grown in the EU but is up for re-approval soon. The other companies waiting for approval (duPont Pioneer and Syngenta) are still waiting.
One of the things that I find most disappointing in any debate is the realisation that somewhere along the line somebody knows that what they are saying is not true. It’s the reason that I get angry at comments from the Catholic church about the ineffectiveness of using condoms against HIV, and it’s the reason that I get pretty frustrated by large parts of the anti-GM lobby too.
We’ve all heard claims that GM foods aren’t safe because they aren’t properly tested yet, or they haven’t been independently validated by scientists with nothing to be gained from their success. In 2013 there are around 600 peer-reviewed journal articles documenting the safety of genetically modified groups. Of these, around a third were funded by independent organisations. Around 3 billion GM meals have been eaten (since the vast majority of American soy and maize is now GM) without a single human health law suit. This is not to say that the case is closed and there’s nothing left to be learned, just that the public perception about these things is remarkably skewed. Continue reading
No full length post here, just a suggestion that you all go to read Mark Lynas*’ fantastic deconstruction of various anti-GMO arguments. Obviously none of the arguments mean ‘go grow GM across the world immediately!’ but he gives some lovely detailed responses to the inconsistency in various people’s thinking (e.g. how objecting to Monsanto creating a monopoly on corn should not lead to trashing open source disease tolerant papaya in Africa) and explanations of how environmental groups are doing things that simply aren’t good for the environment.
It’s long, but a very good read.
Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts the precise opposite of the truth.
This is why I use the term conspiracy theory. Populist ideas about conspiracies do not arise spontaneously in a political and historic vacuum. They result when powerful ideological narratives collide with major world events, rare occasions where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness.
The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002.
Full link is here
*Mark Lynas as in the authors of Six Degrees, a pop science book about how the world would change as average global temperature increased by 1 degree, 2 degrees, 3 degrees etc… It’s basically a huge meta study of primary literature and very enjoyable. Apparently he’s good at writing about GM too – who knew?
Posted in Biology, Genetics, Science
Tagged activists, biology, conspiracy, crops, food security, genetics, GM, Mark Lynas, other blogs, science, science communication, science journalism
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, aim to “help all people lead healthy, productive lives”. This is brought about by astronomic sized donations ($2.6 billion in 2010) to a variety of healthcare interventions, educational initiatives, scientific projects, and help for those in extreme poverty.
One of their latest funding projects is a $9,872,613 research grant, designed to last 5 years and a month, awarded to the John Innes Centre. (That’s about £6.34 million at today’s exchange rate). The JIC is another of the BBSRCs ‘research institutes’, like Rothamsted. This essentially means that they can do all the research that universities do, without any pesky undergrads running around wanting to be taught how to hold a pipette.
The project will research the feasibility of producing cereal crops (probably wheat and barley) that are capable of fixing their own nitrogen. Plants need nitrogen in order to produce amino acids, and therefore protein: including chlorophyll, which is what makes plants green and allows them to photosynthesise. Without nitrogen, plants are yellow and stunted – because they can’t harness the sun’s energy as sugar. They’re essentially a bit useless. During the Green Revolution, when industrial fertilisers (as opposed to cow manure) came into common usage, yields became up to three times what they originally were. But the sort of small scale farmers that the JIC project is designed to help (specifically those in sub-Saharan Africa) are not able to afford the huge quantities of fertiliser that their crops need.
This is where the idea of crop rotations arose. Certain plants such as the legumes (peas and beans) are able to survive without the application of any external nitrogen-rich fertiliser. This is because they have a symbiotic relationhip with a ‘nitrogen-fixing’ bacterium called Rhizobia, which can capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into compounds like ammonia, which are solid and can dissolve in soil water.
If nitrogen-fixing maize could be produced, this would allow maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to grow higher yielding crops without needing to spend so much money on external fertiliser, or leave fields to fallow every few years.
It will be a long project. The aim is to get the same bacteria that populate legume plants to form an association with the cereal. Step 1 is in getting the cereal to even recognise the presence of the bacteria! If the maize plant can sense that the bacteria are there, it can begin to produce a simple swelling in which the bacteria can ‘live’. From there, evolution should theoretically do the rest…
These are just a handful of stories that have caught my eye this week, that I haven’t had time to write a proper post about.
Government still positive about GM research, but no plans to relax legislation
David Willetts, the UK Science Minister gave an interview to the Telegraph prior to a meeting of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council to share his thoughts about agricultural research. He was supportive of GM research, which he said the government would continue to fund, and the Rothamsted trial in particular, although he also pointed out that plenty of research is not transgenic and emphasised that the government does not plan to change its position on GM crops to a more permissive one.
Biologists don’t like equations!
Dr Tim Fawcett and Dr Andrew Higginson from the University of Bristol have published a study in PNAS suggesting that biologists are prone to overlook equation-dense papers in favour of those that are less maths-heavy. For each additional equation, inequality or mathematical expression per page papers were on average cited 28% fewer times. Other theoretical papers were more likely to cite the equation dense manuscripts, but since the majority of papers are practical and these authors were less likely to cite papers relying heavily on mathematical theory, the overall effect on citation is a negative one.
Iconic sexual selection paper called into question
The single most cited paper in the study of sexual selection has been called into question by a new study by Prof. Patricia Gowaty from UCLA. ‘Intra-sexual selection in Drosophila‘ was published in 1948 and has made it into the bibliography of some 1385 journal papers (according to Web of Science); yet it may be fatally flawed in its method. The study predates genetic methods of tracking parentage, and so fly offspring were assigned parents on the basis of their inheritance of unique mutations. Unfortunately the study failed to account for the skew in results caused by only scoring flies with two distinct mutations, and the potentially lethal effects of some of those mutation combinations.