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2-Plants: GE grass should secure Dubai's golf paradise

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Pritchard aims for 'green' GM grass
SOURCE: The Telegraph, UK, by Sylvia Pfeifer
        posted by checkbiotech, Switzerland
DATE:   3 Apr 2005

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Pritchard aims for 'green' GM grass
Sylvia Pfeifer describes how FuturaGene wants to use its gene technology
to preserve Dubai's fairways.

Mark Pritchard is in Dubai on a mission to help the tiny Gulf state
remain a golfer's paradise. After years of defying the desert climate, a
government initiative is examining ways to ensure Dubai's fairways remain
lush and green - but with less use of fresh water.

Pritchard, who chairs FuturaGene, a company forged from a joint research
venture between scientists from Purdue University, thinks he may well
have the answer.

The company, which quietly listed on the Alternative Investment Market
last May, has found a way to "boost" certain genes in plants to beef up
their natural defences against harsh environments such as salty soil,
drought and frost.

In the case of Dubai, says Pritchard, the government is trying to develop
golf courses where the grass doesn't wilt in the heat and needs less water.

Dubai, however, is just one part of the company's strategy. Ultimately,
if everything goes to plan, FuturaGene hopes to develop plants grown by
irrigating them with sea water instead of fresh water - holding out the
potential to revolutionise global agriculture.

According to Pritchard, it is a revolution that couldn't come sooner. In
the US alone environmental stresses such as salt and drought cause
approximately $12bn (£6.4bn) to $14bn a year in agricultural production
losses and a reduction in crop yield of up to 70 per cent.

"We are addressing major problems here," says Pritchard. "The other big
issue is that all the arable land globally is pretty much used up. There
is very little extra space to grow crops. A lot of arable land is being
lost to salinity and there has to be a question how, in 30 years time, do
we increase our food production?"

The Chinese, says Pritchard, have got the right approach. He points to
FuturaGene's agreement last week to form a joint venture with China
Agricultural University to investigate the study of what he calls "plant-
stress technology".

"China has always had food security close to its geopolitical agenda.
With growing industrial commercialisation, the country is trying to
increase crop production yields. All in all, China needs this technology
to boost its own crop production yields," he says.

Despite Pritchard's enthusiasm, not everyone is convinced that GM is the
right way to solve the world's agricultural crisis. Critics say the
scientists are throwing technology at a problem that could be better
solved by figuring out what causes it in the first place.

"It's a very short-term approach that in the end won't solve the problem
but make it worse," says Carlo Leifert, a professor of organic
agriculture at Newcastle University. "You should go over to a proper
irrigation system where you either desalinate the water or you regularly
over-irrigate to flush the salt out."

Pritchard, however, as FuturaGene's seed investor, remains convinced. He
is also keen to differentiate its technology as a "greener" version of GM
than the sort that attracted notoriety when originally promoted by
Monsanto, the American company, because it avoids the cross-transfer of
non-plant genes, such as those in insects.

"Whilst our crops are genetically engineered, we engineer them by
boosting existing genes . . . The genome [blueprint] of the plant looks
like the genome of a normal plant, just more efficient," he argues.

FuturaGene's approach has been to study how plants protect themselves and
to enhance their natural defence systems by amplifying the relevant
genes. One gene, SOS1, helps plants to grow in salt-rich soils. It helps
them to pump salts out of their roots before it becomes a problem.

So far FuturaGene's scientists, including Ray Bressan of Purdue
University, have identified and patented 11 key genes. The company has
two prototypes being field-tested in China, one in tomatoes and one in
rice. The actual physical plants are working, says Pritchard. What the
company needs to do is to get through the regulatory process. It has
applied for approval with the US Food and Drug Administration and
Pritchard expects approval within five years.

Europe, however, remains a difficult market to crack, he concedes, given
the widespread hostility towards all things with a GM label.

So why has FuturaGene listed in the UK rather than in New York?. Well, it
turns out that the decisive factor was not prevailing attitudes towards
GM but the less burdensome corporate governance environment here.

"We did think of listing in the US, but we felt the easiest, quickest
route to raise capital to take this company forward was by coming to London."


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