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Carst and Walker
GM corn

Corn that tolerates drought

As scientists expect drought to become more common due to global warming in coming years, this could impact everything from the price of food to the price of fuel planet-wide. As a result, for the last several years agribusiness giants like Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta have been pursuing genetic modification to enable the corn plant to thrive even without enough rain. And now the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering approving just such a new corn.

A hybrid genetically engineered to thrive on less water — this would be the first time such a corn strain would be available.

“Working on something like drought is more complex than introducing a trait like insect resistance,” says plant breeder Bob Reiter, vice president of biotechnology at Monsanto, the company seeking approval for the new strain. “We have screened through thousands of genes in the past several years, more than in the entire history for the herbicide-resistant or insect protection.”

Monsanto researchers, working with German chemical giant BASF, settled on a gene called “cold shock protein B” that is native to the microbe known as Bacillus subtilis, a soil bacteria whose special skill is to shut down, for years if need be, when environmental conditions such as drought would otherwise kill it. The new gene won’t confer that capability to corn but rather will help to maintain normal growth even when the crop is provided with less water than normal.

“What it seems to be doing, it’s helping the plant basically to maintain more normal metabolic levels in the plant as opposed to trying to shut those processes down under stress,” Reiter explains. “Next year, in 2012, we will be doing farm trials with farmers to evaluate the gene in different hybrids.”

In fact, the new gene will have to work in concert with other introduced genetic packages, such as the genes that make some corn hybrids survive application of glyphosate, the Monsanto-produced herbicide more commonly known as Roundup. “There are 34,000 genes in a corn plant,” Reiter says. “Having 10 or 12 or even 15 more express correctly and work in concert, I don’t think it’s a big challenge.”

In field trials in drier regions of the western US, the drought-tolerant corn delivered seven to 10 extra bushels per acre, according to Monsanto and BASF. The USDA estimates that average annual global corn crop losses due to “moderate drought” are 15 percent per year already.

At the same time, human health or environmental impacts remain unknown for this new strain. The US National Research Council found in 2004, however, that no adverse health effects have been found that can be attributed to genetic engineering despite American corn consumption rising from 5.85 kilograms per capita annually in 1980 to 15 kilograms annually by 2008, while the portion of the crop genetically engineered rose from zero to 80 percent over the same period.

The USDA will collect public comments on the proposal to allow wider use of such corn until July 11 and then make its final decision.

Scientific American: Read more

Resurrection plant could save us (June 2010)

ImageWhen you sit down to a bowl of cornflakes one breakfast time 40 years from now, you might just want to close your eyes and offer thanks to UCT’s Professor Jill Farrant.

ImageThe UN Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that climate change will force many countries to abandon crop farming by 2050. But ground-breaking work by Farrant could save the day.

Resurrection plants, mostly endemic to southern Africa, tolerate near total water loss for prolonged periods. If the way in which their genetic make-up works to do this could be better understood, it could be used to increase crops’ drought resistance without resorting to genetic modification.

Farrant was recently awarded the €100 000 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award to continue her work on how these plants can be used to ensure future food security. Mail & Guardian. Read more

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