Published: Tue, 27 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Last Build Date: Tue, 27 Sep 2016 17:41:08 -0400
Mon, 26 Sep 2016 15:00:00 -0400The Union of Concerned Scientists dismisses "industrial farming" as "the outdated, unsustainable system that dominates U.S. food production." Greenpeace urges people to "say no to industrial agriculture" while denouncing "our broken and unsustainable food system." They typically recommend a switch to small-scale organic farming as a supposedly sustainable form of food production. Considering, for example, that organic wheat yields are anywhere from 64 percent to just half of those produced by conventional farming, it's a very interesting definition of "sustainable." In the Sunday New York Times, Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University shows in a wonderful op-ed what unsustainable nonsense is being peddled to a credulous public by clueless activists about the alleged unsustainability of conventional farming. Lusk explains how the dramatic increase in productivity in modern farming since 1950 has prevented the plowing down of hundreds of millions of acres of additional land and the production of more milk and meat growing fewer animals. Lusk notes: Before "factory farming" became a pejorative, agricultural scholars of the mid-20th century were calling for farmers to do just that — become more factorylike and businesslike. From that time, farm sizes have risen significantly. It is precisely this large size that is often criticized today in the belief that large farms put profit ahead of soil and animal health. But increased size has advantages, especially better opportunities to invest in new technologies and to benefit from economies of scale. Buying a $400,000 combine that gives farmers detailed information on the variations in crop yield in different parts of the field would never pay on just five acres of land; at 5,000 acres, it is a different story. These technologies reduce the use of water and fertilizer and harm to the environment. Modern seed varieties, some of which were brought about by biotechnology, have allowed farmers to convert to low- and no-till cropping systems, and can encourage the adoption of nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as clover or alfalfa to promote soil health. Herbicide-resistant crops let farmers control weeds without plowing, and the same technology allows growers to kill off cover crops if they interfere with the planting of cash crops. The herbicide-resistant crops have some downsides: They can lead to farmers' using more herbicide (though the type of herbicide is important, and the new crops have often led to the use of safer, less toxic ones). But in most cases, it's a trade-off worth making, because they enable no-till farming methods, which help prevent soil erosion. These practices are one reason soil erosion has declined more than 40 percent since the 1980s. Improvements in agricultural technologies and production practices have significantly lowered the use of energy and water, and greenhouse-gas emissions of food production per unit of output over time. United States crop production now is twice what it was in 1970. There is one continent where organic agriculture is the dominant form of farming - Africa. Cereal yields in Nigeria average 1,594 kilograms per hectare (kph); in Niger 436 kph; and Kenya 1,628 kph. In the U.S. cereal yield is 7,637 kilograms per hectare - yields are about five times higher. Due to ever more productive factory farming, humanity has very likely reached peak farmland and more land will be returned to nature as more food is grown on less land. What's outdated and unsustainable are environmentalist demands to abandon modern farming technologies.[...]
Fri, 09 Sep 2016 13:30:00 -0400Beyond Human: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Extending Our Lives, by Eve Herold, St. Martin's Press, 291 pages, $26.99 "Transhumanism is becoming more respectable, and transhumanism, with a small t, is rapidly emerging through conventional mainstream avenues," Eve Herold reports in her astute new book, Beyond Human. While big-T Transhumanism is the activist movement that advocates the use of technology to expand human capacities, small-t transhumanism is the belief or theory that the human race will evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of deliberate technological interventions. As the director of public policy research and education at the Genetics Policy Institute, Herold knows these scientific, medical, and bioethical territories well. Movements attract countermovements, and Herold covers the opponents of transhuman transformation too. These bioconservatives range from moralizing neocons to egalitarian liberals who fear the new technologies somehow threaten human dignity and human equality. "I began this book committed to exploring all the arguments, both for and against human enhancement," she writes. "In the process I have found time and again that the bioconservative arguments are less than persuasive." (Herold cites some of my own critiques of bioconservatism in her book.) Herold opens with a tale of Victor Saurez, a man living a couple of centuries from now who at age 250 looks and feels like a 30-year-old. Back in dark ages of the 21st century, Victor was ideologically set against any newfangled technologies that would artificially extend his life. But after experiencing early onset heart failure, he agreed have a permanent artificial heart implanted because he wanted to know his grandchildren. Next, in order not to be a burden to his daughter, he decided to have vision chips installed in his eyes to correct blindness from macular degeneration. Eventually he agreed to smart guided nanoparticle treatments that reversed the aging process by correcting the relentlessly accumulating DNA errors that cause most physical and mental deterioration. Science fiction? For now. "Those of us living today stand a good chance of someday being the beneficiaries of such advances," Herold argues Consider artificial hearts. In 2012 Stacie Sumandig, a 40-year-old mother of four, was told that she would be dead within days due to heart failure caused by a viral infection. Since no donor heart was available, so she opted to have the Syncardia Total Artificial Heart (TAH) installed instead. The TAH completely replaces the natural heart and is powered by batteries carried in backpack. It enabled Sumandig to live, work, and take care of her kids for 196 days before a donor heart became available. As of this month, 1,625 TAHs have been implanted; one person lived with one for 4 years before receiving a donor heart. In 2015, an ongoing clinical trial began in which 19 patients received permanent TAHs. Herold goes on to describe pioneering research on artificial kidneys, livers, lungs, and pancreases. "Artificial organs will soon be designed that are more durable and perhaps more powerful than natural ones, leading them to become not only curative but enhancing," she argues. In the future, people will be loaded up with technologies working to keep them healthy and alive. (One troubling issue this raises: What do we do when someone using such biomedical technologies chooses to die? Who would be actually be in charge of deactivating those technologies? Would the law treat deactivation by a third party as tantamount to murder? In such cases, something akin to today's legalized physician-assisted dying may have to be sanctioned.) Artificial organs have considerable competition too. Herold, unfortunately, does not report on the remarkable prospects for growing transplantable human organs inside pigs and sheep. Nor does she focus much attention on therapies using stem cells that could replace and repair damaged tissues and organs. But such research supports her view that biotechnol[...]
Wed, 06 Jul 2016 17:45:00 -0400
(image) "Federal courts have just days to stop Vermont's unconstitutional, costly, and misguided genetically modified (GMO) food-labeling law from taking effect," warned Reason contributors Baylen Linnekin and Julie Kelly a little over a week ago. Vermont's law took effect on July 1. In that same article, Linnekin and Kelly noted that the U.S. Senate was inching "toward a compromise that would, if passed, prohibit laws like Vermont's from taking effect. But even if that bill were to become law, it won't come in time to halt Vermont's law from taking effect next week."
Better late than never. The Senate has taken a procedural step that will lead to the passage of a bill that would mandate federal GMO labeling of foods, either on-package or by means of QR codes. Since foods made with ingredients from modern biotech crops are no more dangerous or nutritionally different than those made from conventional or organic crops, such labels are likely to mislead consumers. However, the new federal requirements will prevent the proliferation of widely varying state labeling mandates. Of course, a non-fraudulent voluntary system of process labeling akin what is done now with regard to kosher and halal products would be much preferable.
In any case, infuriated activists showered the senators with $2,000, apparently to symbolize their being "bought-off" by Big Gene. The thoroughly dishonest and scientifically illiterate Friends of the Earth issued a press release:
This bill is a travesty, an undemocratic and discriminatory bill which preempts state laws, while offering no meaningful labeling for GMOs. If accepted, Americans will remain in the dark about what we feed our families. We are deeply disappointed in the members of Congress who supported this bill and who did not stand with the vast majority of Americans who want mandatory on-package GMO labeling.
Last week, 100 Nobel Laureates called Greenpeace's opposition to biotech crops "a crime against humanity." FOE's unceasing efforts to mislead the public about biotech crops is also a crime.
Tue, 05 Jul 2016 19:17:00 -0400
(image) Twenty years ago today, a domestic sheep named Dolly was born. She was the first mammal cloned using the nucleus of an adult cell. Her creators in Scotland held off announcing that their achievement until February, 1997. Headlines immediately cited ethical concerns and many advocated the banning of the technique, especially an attempts to clone a human being. In my May, 1997 article "The Twin Paradox" I reported a bunch of these bioethical pronunciamentos:
But Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) ... introduced a bill to ban the federal funding of human cloning or human cloning research. "I want to send a clear signal," said the senator, "that this is something we cannot and should not tolerate. This type of research on humans is morally reprehensible."
Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, hurriedly said that human cloning should be immediately banned. Perennial Luddite Jeremy Rifkin grandly pronounced that cloning "throws every convention, every historical tradition, up for grabs."At the putative opposite end of the political spectrum, conservative columnist George Will chimed in: "What if the great given--a human being is a product of the union of a man and woman--is no longer a given?"
In addition to these pundits and politicians, a whole raft of bioethicists declared that they, too, oppose human cloning. Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center said flat out: "The message must be simple and decisive: The human species doesn't need cloning." George Annas of Boston University agreed: "Most people who have thought about this believe it is not a reasonable use and should not be allowed.... This is not a case of scientific freedom vs. the regulators."
Assuming human cloning is safe (and no one knew back in 1997 how safe or unsafe the technique would prove to be), I could discern no ethical reason why the birth of a younger identical twin would be any more immoral than the births of same-age identical twins.
Dolly's creation turns out not to be an ethical cautionary tale, but rather an example of how complicated biology is and how slowly biotechnological progress takes place. Twenty years later, no one has cloned a human being. But Dolly's birth did spark a great deal of research into the possible therapeutic uses of adult, embryonic, and induced pluripotent stem cells.
By the way, if anyone wants to clone me, please just go ahead.
Wed, 29 Jun 2016 13:08:00 -0400
(image) An open letter today signed by 100 Nobel Prize Laureates calls upon the anti-technology activist group "Greenpeace to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general." The laureates point out that "scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity."
The laureates specifically demand that Greenpeace stop its attacks on Golden Rice which has been genetically enhanced to produce a vitamin A precursor as a way to prevent millions of deaths and cases of blindness annually in poor countries where the grain is the chief food staple. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in between 250,000 and 500,000 children each year, half of whom die within 12 months, according to the World Health Organization. A study by German researchers in 2014 estimated that activist opposition to the deployment of Golden Rice has resulted in the loss of 1.4 million life-years in just India alone.
Among the signatories are David Baltimore, Paul Berg, Elizabeth Blackburn, Steven Chu, Daniel Kahneman, and Harold Varmus.
The laureates' letter states:
WE CALL UPON GREENPEACE to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general;
WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace's campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace's actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.
How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a "crime against humanity"?
Actually, Greenpeace and other anti-biotech activists such as Naomi Klein and Vandana Shiva have long surpassed that threshold.
Mon, 13 Jun 2016 11:05:00 -0400
(image) In 1992, average life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 75.8 years. By 2008 that had risen by over 2 years to 78.1 years. The most recent data (2013) from the Centers for Disease Control finds that it is now 78.8 years on average. A rough calculation finds that life expectancy is increasing at a rate of about 2 months for every year that passes. In general, longer life is a good, but longer healthier life is even better. The good news is that even as life expectancy lengthens, healthy life expectancy is increasing even faster, according to a new National Bureau of Economic Research study by researchers associated with Harvard University. The researchers focus on increases in life expectancy for American over age 65 and report:
Years of healthy life expectancy at age 65 increased by 1.8 years over that time period, while disabled life expectancy fell by 0.5 years....[and then] we identify the medical conditions that contribute the most to changes in healthy life expectancy. The largest improvements in healthy life expectancy come from reduced incidence and improved functioning for those with cardiovascular disease and vision problems. Together, these conditions account for 63 percent of the improvement in disability-free life expectancy.
The increase in disability-free life expectancy for Americans over age 65 is largely the result of improved medical care. Specifically, cataract surgery and prophylactic treatments that prevent heart disease such as medications to lower blood pressure have significantly reduced the incidence of disabilities experienced by earlier generations at younger ages. This is good news, but the health care system is still far away from longevity escape velocity, that is, when increases in life expectancy rise faster than the time that passes. In other words, longevity escape velocity will be achieved when instead of rising at merely 2 months per year, life expectancy lengthens faster than 12 months per year.
For more background, see my Reason cover article, "Eternal Youth for All!"
Wed, 01 Jun 2016 12:00:00 -0400
In the United States, modern biotech crop varieties make up 89 percent of the corn planted each year, 94 percent of the soybeans, and 91 percent of the cotton. In February, agricultural researchers at Purdue University investigated what would happen if anti-biotech activists were successful in getting such crop varieties banned.
Their study calculated that eliminating all genetically modified crops in the U.S. would reduce corn yields by 11.2 percent, soybean yields by 5.2 percent, and cotton yields by 18.6 percent.
To maintain current production, U.S. farmers would then have to plow down an additional 250,000 acres of forests and pastureland. A global ban would require the conversion of 2.7 million acres of forests and pastures into cropland. None of that would be free: U.S. food prices would rise $14 billion to $24 billion per year.
A 2014 meta-analysis by German researchers found that the global adoption of biotech crops has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and boosted farmer profits by 68 percent. There's no question that banning biotech crops would undermine environmentalists' professed goal of protecting the natural world.
Fri, 27 May 2016 13:30:00 -0400Regulation killed biotech crop innovation. In the 1980s, at the dawn of the crop biotechnology era, scores of startups eagerly applied new bioengineering techniques to modify and enhance crop varieties. They have all vanished. Now the good news: The new CRISPR gene-editing technology may revive and restore competition and variety to the seed market. But only if activists and regulators stay out of the way. Today activists argue that the big four crop biotech companies—Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences—have monopolized the world's seed markets, commanding more than half the world's commercial seed supply. In the U.S. they sell 80 percent of seed corn and 70 percent of soybeans planted. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an antitrust investigation of Monsanto, but it ultimately decided not to take action. Long gone are the myriad early agbiotech startups—DNA Plant Technology, Agracetus, Crop Genetics International, Advanced Genetic Sciences, Biotechnica Agriculture, United Agriseeds, Molecular Genetics, Agrigenetics, and so on. Researchers at Calgene, founded in 1980, predicted that the first commercial biotech crops would be in the field by 1988. Instead, the first successful commercial biotech crops were not deployed until 1996. By the mid-1990s, most of the independent agbioech startups were no more; many of them had been bought up by the big chemical companies that now dominate commercial crop biotechnology. Consequently, the seed market for most commercial crops is highly concentrated. This is largely the result of regulation. Thanks to anti-biotech agitation, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cobbled together a system for regulating biotech crops in the 1980s. Over time, the rules have become ever more rococo. As a result, according to one recent industry estimate, it costs $136 million to get a new crop variety from discovery through the regulatory approval process. These costs pose a huge barrier to entry for any startups that might want to introduce a new genetically enhanced tomato, spinach, artichoke, or apple, much less extensively planted field crops like corn, soybean, and canola. Enter CRISPR, a new genome editing technique that enables bioengineers to essentially change and rearrange bits of DNA sequence in an organism's genome wherever they want. The chief factor fueling the strict regulation of agricultural biotechnology is the fear that genes transferred among microorganisms, animals, and plants would somehow get out of control. Yet CRISPR does not necessarily involve moving DNA from one organism to another. For example, the Pennsylvania State plant pathologist Yinong Yang has used the technique to engineer the common white button mushroom to resist browning. He did that by using CRISPR to delete a few base pairs from a gene. In October, Yang asked the USDA if his edited mushroom requires the agency's approval to grow and market. In April, the agency replied that since the mushroom contained no foreign DNA, it did not fall under its regulations. Some researchers in Israel have used CRISPR to create cucumbers that resist several plant disease viruses. Again, since no foreign genes or DNA was introduced into the pickle precursors, they should not fall under the purview of current U.S. biotech regulations. Similarly, British researchers have used CRISPR to change how seeds develop in barley and broccoli. Chinese researchers have used gene-editing to create a wheat variety that resists powdery mildew. Sadly, some activists are calling crop varieties created by CRISPR "hidden GMOs" and are demanding that they be regulated. Why "hidden"? Because there is no easy way to tell a crop variety modified using CRISPR from one that has not been modified, except that one does not, say, die of viral infections. In other[...]
Fri, 27 May 2016 13:30:00 -0400
(image) Regulation killed biotech crop innovation. In the 1980s, at the dawn of the crop biotechnology era, scores of startups eagerly applied new bioengineering techniques to modify and enhance crop varieties. They have all vanished. Today, the seed market for most commercial crops is highly concentrated. This is largely the result of regulation. Now for the good news: The new CRISPR gene-editing technology may revive and restore competition and variety to the seed market. But only if activists and regulators stay out of the way.
Tue, 24 May 2016 15:25:00 -0400
You might have heard that Americans overwhelmingly favor mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. That's true, according to a new study: 84 percent of respondents said they support the labels.
But a nearly identical percentage—80 percent—in the same survey said they'd also like to see labels on food containing DNA.
The study, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal last week, also found that 33 percent of respondents thought that non-GM tomatoes "did not contain genes" and 32 percent thought that "vegetables did not have DNA." So there's that.
University of Florida food economist Brandon R. McFadden and his co-author Jayson L. Lusk surveyed 1,000 American consumers and discovered that "consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food." In fact, the authors say, "the findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as motivation for public policy surrounding GM food."
My summary for laymen: When it comes to genetically modified food, people don't know much, they don't know what they don't know, and they sure as heck aren't letting that stop them from having strong opinions.
However, the authors do offer another, more charitable way to read their findings, suggesting that rather than simply throw up our hands and say that Americans are the Jon Snows of GM food, we should consider the possibility that the results "indicate how consumers psychological[ly] handle difficult questions."
Perhaps "individuals attempt to economize on scarce cognitive resources by unconsciously substituting an easier question for a hard one. Rather than seriously weighing the pros and cons of a mandatory labeling, the similarity in responses to the DNA labeling question suggests people may instead be substituting these questions with a simper question like, 'do you want free information about a topic for which you know very little?' This psychological process would lead to similar levels of support to two very different policy questions." Leaving aside the sick burn implied by the phrase "scarce cognitive resources" for a minute, this is a good point.
What's more, the researcher found that even posing basic questions about GM food caused people to re-evaluate how much they knew, downgrading their own perceptions of their knowledge levels, while simultaneously becoming more confident about the safety of GM foods.
UPDATE with fun fact: High fructose corn syrup and other highly refined foods made with GM crops actually don't contain DNA, apparently.
Fri, 20 May 2016 13:30:00 -0400More than 120,000 Americans are currently on waiting lists for lifesaving organ transplants. Every day some 22 of them die before they can receive a transplant. Wouldn't it be great if organs precisely matched to their recipients could be grown inside domesticated animals, such as pigs or sheep? Scientists are trying to achieve just this goal, but some ethicists are opposed to the research. At Stanford University, stem cell researcher Hiromitsu Nakauchi has made some significant steps toward growing human organs inside of animals. As a proof of principle experiment, he grew a rat pancreas in a mouse. He did this by disabling the gene for generating a pancreas in a mouse embryo, then injecting the embryo with stem cells from rats. The rat stem cells took up this vacated "organ niche" and differentiated into fully functioning pancreases. Such cross-species mixtures are called chimeras, after the creature from Greek mythology that was part lion, part goat, and part serpent. Nakauchi also successfully used this method to grow a functioning pancreas in a pig using stem cells from a genetically different pig. Nakauchi is now working with Pablo Ross, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, to create human-pig and human-sheep embryos to see if the technique can produce human organs. The genes for generating specific organs are disabled and human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are injected into pig and sheep embryos. Induced pluripotent stem cells are adult cells that have been genetically reprogramed to an embryonic stem-cell-like state. Once reprogrammed, iPSCs can grow into different types of cells and tissues. For example, reprogrammed skin cells would be able to differentiate into liver cells or heart cells. Once the human-pig and human-sheep chimeric embryos are created, they are installed in the wombs of pigs and sheep, where they are allowed to gestate for 28 days before being removed for examination. Normal gestation is 114 days and 152 for pigs and sheep respectively. For now, they stop short of full gestation in an effort to avoid ethical controversy. Last year, the National Institutes of Health imposed a moratorium on funding any research in which human pluripotent cells are introduced into non-human animal embryos. But why would anyone object to this potentially lifesaving research? "You're getting into unsettling ground that I think is damaging to our sense of humanity," the New York Medical College biologist Stuart Newman told NPR this week. Sufficiently unsettling, in fact, that some U.S. senators tried to outlaw human-animal chimera research back in 2009. In the same NPR report, Jason Robert, a bioethicist at Arizona State University, said, "One of the concerns that a lot of people have is that there's something sacrosanct about what it means to be human expressed in our DNA." He added that some people might consider that inserting human DNA into "other animals and giving those other animals potentially some of the capacities of humans that this could be a kind of violation—a kind of, maybe, even a playing God." One issue that worries folks like Newman and Robert is the possibility that human stem cells, instead of growing into transplantable hearts, kidneys or livers, might migrate to the brains of animals or to their reproductive organs. Would human neurons in the brains of pigs generate something like human consciousness? It is worth noting that mice, into which glial cells obtained from donated human fetuses were injected into their brains when they were pups, learned much faster to fear a sound associated with a mild electric shock than did their normal confreres. But while the human brain cells boosted the efficiency of mouse neural networks, they did not confer any specifically human qualities on[...]
Tue, 17 May 2016 16:10:00 -0400
(image) The National Academy of Sciences finds that modern biotech crops are safe to eat and safe for the environment in a new comprehensive report, Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, released today. Let's just go through the highlights:
Effects on human health. The committee carefully searched all available research studies for persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of foods derived from GE [genetically engineered] crops but found none. Studies with animals and research on the chemical composition of GE foods currently on the market reveal no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health and safety than from eating their non-GE counterparts. Though long-term epidemiological studies have not directly addressed GE food consumption, available epidemiological data do not show associations between any disease or chronic conditions and the consumption of GE foods.
There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have had benefits to human health by reducing insecticide poisonings. In addition, several GE crops are in development that are designed to benefit human health, such as rice with increased beta-carotene content to help prevent blindness and death caused by vitamin A deficiencies in some developing nations.
Effects on the environment. The use of insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops did not reduce the overall diversity of plant and insect life on farms, and sometimes insect-resistant crops resulted in increased insect diversity, the report says. While gene flow – the transfer of genes from a GE crop to a wild relative species – has occurred, no examples have demonstrated an adverse environmental effect from this transfer. Overall, the committee found no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems. However, the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.
The NAS study committee was concerned about the evolution of herbicide resistant weeds and pesticide resistant insects, but noted that agronomic changes could manage the pest resistance problem. The committee also noted that the advent of GE crops had not speeded up the trajectory of yield increases in U.S. crops. However, there is considerable evidence that biotech crops contribute to significant yield increases for farmers in developing countries.
So Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Organic Consumers Association, and the Center for Food Safety, I invite you all to endorse the strong scientific consensus on the safety of biotech crops.
Tue, 17 May 2016 15:02:00 -0400
(image) Nature Genetics has published an article with the catchy title, "Signaling from maize organ primordia via FASCIATED EAR3 regulates stem cell proliferation and yield traits," that describes how researchers have bioengineered corn so that yields are boosted by 50 percent. Basically, a team of biologists at Cold Spring Harbor have figured out a way to modulate the molecular brakes that tell ears of corn to stop growing once they reach a certain size. Mutations in the FEA3 receptor eases off the brakes and allows stem cells that grow into kernels of corn to proliferate, but not so much so that they outrun the availability of nutrients, water, and light to sustain their development. This bioengineered change in the FEA3 pathway, according to Cold Spring Harbor, "gave rise to a modest, manageable increase in stem cells, and to ears that were significantly larger than ears in wild-type plants.These ears, the product of maize plants grown from weak alleles of FEA3, had more rows of kernels, and up to 50% higher yield overall than wild-type plants."
The researchers further note that the newly discovered pathway is highly conserved across the plant kingdom, which means that the discovery "holds the prospect of translating into significant increases in yield in all the major staple crops." Just this one gene tweak goes a long way toward fulfilling the USDA's projection of "a 75-percent increase in total production and consumption of major field crops between 2005 and 2050. This increase is larger than the 43-percent increase in global population projected for the same period, reflecting increasing per capita growth in income and the associated increase in consumption of animal products in developing countries."
Malthusians lose again.
Hat tip Richard Rohde.
Fri, 08 Apr 2016 13:01:00 -0400Zika virus is most likely coming to the U.S. this summer. Researchers are more certain than ever that the virus is responsible for infants with microencephaly born from mothers infected with it and also cases of the paralyzing Guillain-Barré syndrome in some infected adults. The disease is spread by moquitoes, especially by the non-native Aedes aegypti mosquito that also carries yellow fever, West Nile, dengue, and chikungunya viruses. According the the Centers for Disease Control, Aedes aegypti is especially prevalent in the southern United States. Although infections acquired from mosquitoes on the mainland of the U.S. have not yet been confirmed so far, 82 cases of zika virus have been reported in southern Florida as of this week. There is not yet a vaccine against the virus, but we are not totally defenseless. The first line of defense will be normal efforts at mosquito control including the elmination of breeding sites and spraying pesticides to kill off the bloodsuckers. But an even more elegant and efficient technique is waiting in the wings, if only the objections of anti-biotech activists can be overcome - mosquitoes genetically modified with a gene lethal to their larva. The GMO mosquito has been created by the biotech company Oxitec (now a subsidiary of Intrexon) and has already been successfully used to drastically reduce the populations of mosquitoes at test sites in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Panama. A terrific op-ed in the New York Times by molecular biologist Nina Federof and former Secretary of Agriculture John Block asks, "Why aren’t we quickly gearing up production and beginning large-scale programs to release these mosquitoes?" Their sad answer: It’s because the Oxitec mosquitoes are genetically modified organisms and subject to different regulatory oversight in different countries. In Brazil, for example, release of Oxitec mosquitoes has been approved by one government agency but awaits approval from another agency. Despite its substantial expertise in insect control, the Department of Agriculture has regrettably not taken a role in helping navigate the regulatory complexities for this mosquito. So these insects are being regulated as a “new animal drug” by the F.D.A. The agency is now accepting public comments on Oxitec’s plan and will then evaluate each one before deciding whether to approve the Florida trial. You get the picture. None of this happens fast. Then there’s public opinion. More than 160,000 people signed a petition opposing Oxitec’s trial in the Florida Keys, but most signed before the Zika crisis. In a recent Purdue University survey, 78 percent of respondents supported the use of genetically engineered mosquitoes to control the spread of the Zika virus. The released male mosquitoes have no effect on people because males don’t bite. While we might wait years for a Zika vaccine, the genetically modified mosquito is tested, scalable and ready to go. Zika looks more devastating with every new study. Are the stakes finally high enough to expedite an effective, hemisphere-wide mosquito eradication program that makes use of modern genetic modification techniques? Excellent question. Think how much further along we might have been in preventing the spread of this disease had Oxitec been permitted in 2012 to conduct its trial in the Florida Keys. In March, the FDA actually ruled preliminarily that trials using the GMO mosquitoes are safe and could proceed. However, the agency yesterday bowed to pressure from the Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, and GMO Free USA and delayed approval while extending the public comment period on the possible release of the mosquitoes to May 13. My ho[...]
Fri, 01 Apr 2016 07:06:00 -0400