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March 2007 Updates

Could Genetically Modified Crops Be Killing Bees?

By John McDonald, Special to The Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle
March 10, 2007

With reports coming in about a scourge affecting honeybees, researchers are launching a drive to find the cause of the destruction. The reasons for rapid colony collapse are not clear. Old diseases, parasites and new diseases are being looked at.

Over the past 100 or so years, beekeepers have experienced colony losses from bacterial agents (foulbrood), mites (varroa and tracheal) and other parasites and pathogens. Beekeepers have dealt with these problems by using antibiotics, miticides or integrated pest management.

While losses, particularly in overwintering, are a chronic condition, most beekeepers have learned to limit their losses by staying on top of new advice from entomologists. Unlike the more common problems, this new die-off has been virtually instantaneous throughout the country, not spreading at the slower pace of conventional classical disease.

As an interested beekeeper with some background in biology, I think it might be fruitful to investigate the role of genetically modified or transgenic farm crops. Although we are assured by nearly every bit of research that these manipulations of the crop genome are safe for both human consumption and the environment, looking more closely at what is involved here might raise questions about those assumptions.

The most commonly transplanted segment of transgenic DNA involves genes from a well-known bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which has been used for decades by farmers and gardeners to control butterflies that damage cole crops such as cabbage and broccoli. Instead of the bacterial solution being sprayed on the plant, where it is eaten by the target insect, the genes that contain the insecticidal traits are incorporated into the genome of the farm crop. As the transformed plant grows, these Bt genes are replicated along with the plant genes so that each cell contains its own poison pill that kills the target insect.

In the case of field corn, these insects are stem- and root-borers, lepidopterans (butterflies) that, in their larval stage, dine on some region of the corn plant, ingesting the bacterial gene, which eventually causes a crystallization effect in the guts of the borer larvae, thus killing them.

What is not generally known to the public is that Bt variants are available that also target coleopterans (beetles) and dipterids (flies and mosquitoes). We are assured that the bee family, hymenopterans, is not affected.

That there is Bt in beehives is not a question. Beekeepers spray Bt under hive lids sometimes to control the wax moth, an insect whose larval forms produce messy webs on honey. Canadian beekeepers have detected the disappearance of the wax moth in untreated hives, apparently a result of worker bees foraging in fields of transgenic canola plants.

Bees forage heavily on corn flowers to obtain pollen for the rearing of young broods, and these pollen grains also contain the Bt gene of the parent plant, because they are present in the cells from which pollen forms.

Is it not possible that while there is no lethal effect directly to the new bees, there might be some sublethal effect, such as immune suppression, acting as a slow killer?

The planting of transgenic corn and soybean has increased exponentially, according to statistics from farm states. Tens of millions of acres of transgenic crops are allowing Bt genes to move off crop fields.

A quick and easy way to get an approximate answer would be to make a comparison of colony losses of bees from regions where no genetically modified crops are grown, and to put test hives in areas where modern farming practices are so distant from the hives that the foraging worker bees would have no exposure to them.

Given that nearly every bite of food that we eat has a pollinator, the seriousness of this emerging problem could dwarf all previous food disruptions.

John McDonald is a beekeeper in Pennsylvania.


Rice Recalled Over Gene Contamination

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post
March 6, 2007

The Agriculture Department last night took the unusual step of insisting that U.S. farmers refrain from planting a popular variety of long-grain rice because preliminary tests showed that its seed stock may be contaminated with a variety of gene-altered rice not approved for marketing in the United States.

The announcement marks the third time in six months that U.S. rice has been found to be inexplicably contaminated with engineered traits, and it comes just weeks before the spring planting season.

Adding to the potential disruption, the variety of rice affected is one that many farmers had planned to switch to this spring to avoid a different contaminated strain.

The new problem involves Clearfield CL131 seed, produced by BASF of Germany and marketed by Horizon Ag of Memphis. In an after-hours posting on the USDA Web site, agency officials did not say which unexpected genetic trait had been found in the rice.

In August, Cheniere rice was found to be contaminated with an herbicide-resistance gene that had been under study in 2001 but was never approved or brought to market. The discovery continues to disrupt U.S. rice exports, even though the trait won speedy approval in December.

Statement by Dr. Ron Dehaven Regarding Aphis Hold on Clearfield CL131 Long-Grain Rice Seed

March 5, 2007

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is taking action to prevent the planting and distribution of a long-grain rice seed known as Clearfield CL131 because testing by a private company has revealed the possible presence of trace levels of genetic material not yet approved for commercialization.

"APHIS began issuing emergency action notifications (EANs) yesterday, March 4, to inform distributors that this seed, scheduled for planting this spring, must be held until APHIS can verify and identify the presence of additional genetic material. APHIS directed distributors to begin notifying producers yesterday. Additional EANs are being issued to affected producers as they are identified.

"APHIS is taking this action because the genetic material detected in Clearfield CL131 seed might be regulated, in which case it would not be approved for commercial use. The issuance of EANs will keep any additional CL131 seed from being planted until a determination can be made concerning the identity of this genetic material and the appropriate risk assessment can be conducted. USDA, through its own testing, is in the process of confirming the results reported by BASF Corporation.

"This action is prompted by test results informally reported to APHIS by Horizon Ag last Wednesday evening, with written results being provided to APHIS by BASF Corporation and Horizon Ag on Thursday. Clearfield is a registered trademark of BASF. Clearfield CL131 was not developed as a genetically engineered product. Horizon Ag is licensed by BASF Corporation to market this seed. Both companies are fully cooperating with APHIS.

"This is not the first detection of genetically engineered material in Clearfield CL131 rice seed. Last week, APHIS announced that trace levels of a previously deregulated genetically engineered trait had been identified in Clearfield CL131.

"Because of the possibility that the genetic material in question is regulated, APHIS is conducting an investigation to determine the circumstances surrounding the release and whether any violations of USDA regulations occurred."


More Biotech Woes for U.S. Rice

By Peter Shinn
Brownfield, Ag News for America
March 6, 2007

BASF Agricultural Products of Research Park Triangle, North Carolina, is pulling one number of its Clearfield rice seed off the market.USDA ordered the company to do so after BASF found trace amounts of a biotech event in the Clearfield rice following extensive testing.

Ray Gilmer is group communications manager for the company. He said the likely suspects for the contamination are Liberty Link rice biotech traits that escaped into the environment into the late 1990s. But Gilmer pointed out nothing is known for sure right now.

"We know we found a GM [genetically modified] event in a sample of Clearfield 131 rice," Gilmer said. "But we have not yet identified if it is in fact Liberty Link or anything else."

Gilmore said much detective work will have to be done before the source of the biotech contamination is known. But until it is, Clearfield 131 rice, a conventional variety, won't be sold.

"Regrettably, we're sort of the victim here, and subject to USDA's authority," said Gilmer. "We want to make sure that the rice that we are selling, because it is conventionally bred it has the greatest acceptability for export or domestic consumption, but these are the steps that are necessary to withhold the spread of that genetic material, at until we at leats know what it is."

Gilmer said most BASF Clearfield rice seed is not affected by the recall. He estimated losses to the company from the incident at between $1 million and $9 million dollars.

"We're probably talking about single-digit in the millions of a financial hit," Gilmer surmised. "Thankfully, we have lots of other Clearfield varieties that are available to help fill the pipeline this year."

The discovery last year that unapproved biotech traits had been found in U.S. rice in six states disrupted export markets and prompted several class action lawsuits against Bayer CropScience, which bought the company that, in the late 1990s, originally released the unapproved biotech events. USDA has since approved those biotech varieties for animal and human consumption, but international approval hasn't followed suit.


Woodstock Revisited

By Derek Bacon
The Economist
March 8, 2007

MANKIND has used trees as a source of fuel for thousands of years. But now the notion of exploiting trees for fuel is being updated with a high-tech twist. The idea is to make ethanol, a biofuel that usually comes from maize (corn) or sugar cane, from trees instead. Politicians and environmentalists are embracing ethanol for a number of reasons. Unlike oil, ethanol is renewable: to make more of it, you grow more crops. And blending ethanol into ordinary petrol, or burning it directly in special "flex-fuel" engines, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions.

Why use trees, rather than maize or sugar cane, as a feedstock for ethanol? Because "treethanol" has the potential to be much more energy efficient. The ratio of the energy yielded by a given amount of ethanol to the energy needed to produce it is called the "energy balance". The energy balance for ethanol made from maize is the subject of much controversy, but America's energy department puts it at 1.3; in other words, the ethanol yields 30% more energy than was needed to produce it. For ethanol made from sugar cane in Brazil, the energy balance is 8.3, according to the International Energy Agency.

But for ethanol made from trees, grasses and other types of biomass which contain a lot of cellulose, the energy balance can be as high as 16, at least in theory. In practice the problem is that producing such "cellulosic" ethanol is much more difficult and expensive than producing it from other crops. But the science, technology and economics of treethanol are changing fast. Researchers are racing to develop ways to chip, ferment, distil and refine wood quickly and cheaply.

Interest in cellulosic ethanol is growing as the drawbacks of making ethanol from maize and sugar become apparent. Both are important food crops, and as ethanol production is stepped up around the world, greater demand is driving up the prices of everything from animal feed to cola and biscuits. The price of a bushel of corn rose by 70% between September 2006 and January 2007 to reach its highest level in a decade. Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, even capped the price of corn tortillas in January as America's fast-growing ethanol industry caused prices to rocket. There are clear signs of a backlash against ethanol made from food crops. Supply is struggling to keep up, and as more governments introduce schemes to promote biofuels and cut greenhouse-gas emissions, the tension between food and fuel will only intensify.

Growing maize requires a lot of land, water and agrichemicals, so environmental groups such as America's Natural Resources Defence Council argue that it is merely a short-term, first-generation approach to making ethanol. Most energy experts reckon that using maize-based ethanol as a substitute for petrol can reduce America's demand for petrol by 10-15% at best. As for sugar, its growing value as a biofuel feedstock means that in Brazil, which is now one of the world's largest producers and exporters of ethanol, there is pressure to flatten rainforests to make more room for sugar production. One green objective (reducing dependency on fossil fuels) thus conflicts with another (preserving the environment).

Cellulosic ethanol would address many of these problems. Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Vinod Khosla-a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has made a fortune by spotting opportunities in fields from biotechnology to software-argued that America needs "cellulosic biofuels to win the war on oil...we must encourage research on biomass feedstocks, tomorrow's energy crops."

Trees are a particularly promising feedstock because they grow all year round, require vastly less fertiliser and water and contain far more carbohydrates (the chemical precursors of ethanol) than food crops do. Ethanol is the result of the fermentation of sugars, which is why it can be so simply and efficiently made from sugar cane. Making ethanol from maize is a bit more complicated: the kernels are ground into flour and mixed with water, and enzymes are added to break the carbohydrates from the maize down into sugars, which can then be fermented into ethanol. Making ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks is harder still, however, since it involves breaking down the tough, winding chains of cellulose and hemicellulose from the walls of plant cells to liberate the sugars. This can be done using a cocktail of five or six enzymes, says Edward Shonsey, the boss of Diversa, a biotech firm based in San Diego. The problem is that although such enzymes exist, they are expensive. It is no use being able to produce ethanol from trees if it costs $5 a gallon.

The lure of bioprospecting

So if cellulosic ethanol is to live up to its promise, researchers will have to find cheaper and more efficient enzymes. Grass, trees and other biomass feedstocks consist of a mixture of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, a tough material that helps plants keep their shape. Two large producers of industrial enzymes-Genencor, an American firm, and Novozymes, from Denmark-are working to reduce the cost of cellulase enzymes, which can break down cellulose, to below $0.10 per gallon of ethanol. For its part, Diversa is developing enzymes capable of breaking down hemicellulose. One approach, says Mr Shonsey, is to tweak the structure of existing enzymes to try to make them work better. Another approach is "bio-prospecting"-looking for natural enzymes in unusual places, such as in the stomachs of wood-eating termites.

Treethanol has particular appeal in countries that have a lot of trees and import a lot of fossil fuel. Top of the list is New Zealand: in 2005 the country exported lumber worth NZ$411m ($290m) and imported fossil fuel costing NZ$4.5 billion. In January two of New Zealand's Crown Research Institutes, Scion and AgResearch, announced a research partnership with Diversa. The aim is to investigate the feasibility of producing enough ethanol from trees to fuel all the vehicles on New Zealand's roads without fossil-fuel imports-in other words, to make the country self-sufficient in energy.

BioJoule, a start-up based in Auckland, New Zealand, is planning to build a pilot plant to produce ethanol from a type of willow. The idea, says James Watson, BioJoule's co-founder, is that farmers would grow coppiced willow trees which could be processed into wood chips and then transported to a conversion plant to be turned into ethanol. The process would produce two useful by-products: unsulphonated lignin, a commercially valuable polymer, and xylose, a type of wood sugar used in dyeing and in foods for diabetics. Selling these by-products, Mr Watson calculates, means his plant should be able to produce ethanol for a direct cost of $1.13 per gallon, which compares favourably with ethanol from American maize ($1.44) and is not much more than Brazilian sugar-cane ($0.95).

"Treethanol has particular appeal in countries that have a lot of trees and import a lot of fossil fuel, such as New Zealand and Sweden."

Because willows are fast-growing and can thrive even on nutrient-poor soils, BioJoule's technology could also be used in other parts of the world where there is strong demand for energy, but the soil is not suitable for food crops. Mr Watson thinks China and India look promising.

Another country keen on cellulosic ethanol is Sweden, which is relying heavily upon wood-based solid and liquid biofuels as part of its plan to wean itself off oil by 2020. But where New Zealanders favour willows, the Swedes prefer poplars, since they are abundant and their biology is well understood, says Mats Johnson of SweTree Technologies, based in Umea in northern Sweden.

Even if the right cocktails of enzymes can be found, sceptics say treethanol will still have several problems to overcome. In particular, trees take much longer to grow than grass or food crops-so it might make more sense to make cellulosic ethanol from fast-growing grasses, or the leftover biomass from food crops. Some environmentalists worry that having struggled for years to protect forests from overexploitation, demand for biofuels could undermine their efforts.

And now for Frankentreethanol

One idea is to create new, fast-growing trees to address this problem, either through careful breeding or genetic modification. A team led by Vincent Chiang, a biologist at North Carolina State University, is investigating the production of ethanol from genetically modified trees, with funding from America's Department of Agriculture. "Our preliminary results clearly point out that transgenic wood can drastically improve ethanol-production economics," says Dr Chiang.

A tree's rate of growth is limited by its lignin structure, which is what determines the tree's strength and form. Trees containing less lignin and more cellulose would both grow faster and also produce more ethanol. Some transgenic trees of this kind are being tested in America. Dr Chiang and his colleagues are also looking at ways to modulate the genes that determine the structure of a tree's sugar-containing hemicelluloses in order to make the breakdown and fermentation processes more efficient.

But Steven Strauss, a forest biologist at Oregon State University, says that because of the great genetic variation in willows and poplars, genetic modification may not be necessary. By screening existing varieties it ought to be possible to identify those well suited to ethanol production. Conventional breeding and cloning are very efficient when there is such a variety of species and hybrids to choose from, he says, and the tight regulation of genetically modified organisms makes using the technology expensive and time consuming.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when man first gained mastery over fire, wood was his primary fuel. In the past few centuries fossil fuels have risen to prominence, with calamitous consequences for the world's climate. A diversity of new fuels and energy sources seems the most likely future. It would be fitting if humanity's portfolio of new energy technologies had a place for wood, the oldest of them all.

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