Tag Archives: In the news

Monsanto pulls out of Europe

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. 


Finding the misery molecule? More like imaging a candidate

Depression, like just about every other mental disease, is a strange and mysterious beast. We’ve reached the stage where most people finally understand that it’s really an illness, really a physical problem, not something can be controlled. We know that there are myriad drugs that can help: citalopram, sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine…  But we still can’t reach out and touch it. We still can’t predict it. There’s still not a physical test that you can do. An assay that proves that no, this person isn’t just lazy or melancholy or antisocial: they are depressed.

The headlines

Over the weekend, the news outlets got a bit excited at the prospect that scientists had finally discovered “the molecule responsible for causing feelings of depression” (Independent), “the brain’s most miserable molecule” (The Sunday Times) “the little bastard molecule that causes depression” (msn), “The Thing Responsible for Depression” (Jezebel).

And the science

I wish I could say I’m as excited as they are, but of course the science is never as simple as this. The actual paper released is a slog to say the least, and more Physics than Biology, but I’ll give it a go.  Continue reading

Giant viruses shake up the status quo

A quick microbiology primer before we begin, for the uninitiated or those who don’t have a 14 year old in their lives to ask.

Microbe is a catch-all terms that we use to describe microscopic organisms. These may or may not be pathogenic (disease-causing). They include, but are not limited to:

  • Bacteria (like E. coli and S. aureus, which cause food poisoning)
  • Fungi (like athlete’s foot and brewer’s yeast)
  • Protists (like Plasmodium, which causes malaria and Naegleria, which you might have seen in an episode of House)

We probably shouldn’t include viruses (like the common cold) or prions (like variant CJD) in there because they’re not really classified as organisms: they’re not alive, simply inert particles that harness other living things to replicate themselves. As my year 8s would tell you, they don’t do MRS NERG (movement, reproduction, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, respiration or growth).  Continue reading

I smell a rat, and it isn’t in the pig sty

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

Rusty Research: Fighting Bread’s Biggest Bad-guy

This has been a bad year for farmers: last year’s wet summer and then the cold winter that just won’t end have scuppered one harvest and probably knocked this year’s right down too. Even when conditions are more ideal than they have been this year, farmers and breeders fight an uphill battle trying to prevent a significant proportion of the crop being lost to various pathogens. When it comes to wheat that means rustblack rust, brown rust and yellow rust. Where it strikes, yield losses are likely to be around 20% in susceptible varieties, and the problem is getting much worse. Most resistance to black rust (Puccinia triticina) is caused by a single gene, which a new resistant kind of rust (Ug99) managed to overcome in much the same way as MRSA became resistant to methicillin in our hospitals.

Close-up of wheat leaf rust (”Puccinia triticinia”) on wheat. Photo by James Kolmer. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/graphics/photos/jun06/d519-1.htm Image Number D519-1 PD-USGov-USDA-ARS

Now scientists from Norwich, Cambridge and the USA are trying to find out how some kinds of a similar disease, yellow rust, (Puccinia striiformis or PST) are able to overcome the plant’s natural defences and infect.  Continue reading

Salvaging the salty small holdings

When people interested in food security aren’t busy worrying about plateauing crop yields, they tend to be worrying about how much agricultural land we’re losing. We already use so much of the world for growing food crops (around a third) that there’s very little spare land left, and some of the techniques we use for growing crops lead to the land we already have being lost. When crops are grown in an area with insufficient rainfall they must be irrigated (i.e. watered). But all standing water, even if it doesn’t come from the sea, contains small traces of salts: just look at the label on a bottle of Evian. This means that over time, the land becomes saltier or salinised and since plants don’t like salty soil they struggle to grow there.  Continue reading

Molecular Biology 101: Synteny, Conservation and two wheat genomes

Somehow between going to the Netherlands, the Easter break, a week-long lab course and a conference talk to write I managed to miss not just one, but two really interesting, exciting and useful papers in Nature (Incidentally, I try not to write too much on here related to my PhD: I’m always a little scared that I’ll end up saying similar things about papers in my literature review and then being pulled up for plagiarism or something, but these are two interesting to miss.) But I digress.

Sequencing the wheat A and D genomes

Two weeks ago a consortium of Chinese and American scientists published two papers about sequencing both the A and the D genome progenitors for bread wheat. (Quick re-cap for the un-initiated. Wheat is a hexaploid i.e. instead of having one maternal and one paternal copy of each chromosome – that is, 2 in total, it has 3 pairs of each, making its genotype AABBDD). This is pretty big news for a couple of reasons: Continue reading