GENET archive


2-Plants: The path to prosperity in Africa starts in St. Louis - development of GE cassava

                                  PART I
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TITLE:  SCIENCE: The path to prosperity in Africa starts in St. Louis
SOURCE: St Louis Post-Dispatch, USA, by Robert Joiner
DATE:   18 Jul 2005

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SCIENCE: The path to prosperity in Africa starts in St. Louis

Earlier this month, leaders of the world's eight richest nations met at
the fabled Gleneagles Hotel and golf resort in Perthshire, Scotland, and
pledged $50 billion a year to fight poverty and disease, mainly in
Africa. I particularly liked Bono's take on this pledge to double what
these nations now spend on aid. The Irish rock star, a prime promoter of
the global "Make Poverty History" campaign, said the pledge means "a
mountain has been climbed only to reveal high peaks north of us." Bono's
point was that much work still would be needed to prod the wealthy
nations to translate their pledges into money in the bank.

The Make Poverty History movement is as diverse as it is persistent. It
has brought together Hollywood and the heartland, punk rockers and NASCAR
moms, Pat Robertson and Nelson Mandela in a principled fight for relief
for 1 billion people who subsist on less than $1 a day.

Even so, let's not forget the human suffering that will persist at least
until 2010, when the first $50 billion promissory note comes due. Between
now and then, disease-carrying mosquitoes will claim the lives of more
than a million Africans each year, mostly children, and another 15,000
children under age 5 will continue to die each year from hunger.

These issues raise questions about the priorities and profligacy of the
Group of Eight leaders. They have been quick to point out waste, fraud
and mismanagement among African leaders, but they don't feel the need to
explain why they wasted scores of millions of dollars on a conference at
Gleneagles - including $18 million on travel, catering and accommodations
alone - when part of the rest of the world is begging for relief.

This issue isn't about charity; it's about justice. Pulitzer-Prize-
winning author Jared Diamond suggests as much in his book, "Guns, Germs
and Steel," which points to the colonial legacy in explaining some of
Africa's present-day problems. He talks about brutal regimes that ripped
tropical African civilizations to shreds; that tore men, women and
children from their villages and forced them to live and work in
unsanitary conditions that caused them to fall ill as never before. He
says the scourge of malaria, which still cripples economic productivity
in Africa and traps some populations in a cycle of poverty, is one part
of that legacy.

Quietly, St. Louis is playing an important role in helping to make a
sustainable food supply a reality in Africa. In fact, research being done
at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur may turn out,
in time, to have more impact on the continent's well-being than many of
the promises made at Gleneagles.

Earlier this month, the center received a $3.3 million grant from the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for research to improve the cassava
plant, the most important food crop in Africa. The center was one of only
43 institutions chosen for this round of awards by the foundation; it
received 1,500 applications involving 10,000 scientists from 75 nations.

Winning this grant against stiff competition says a lot about the growing
role the center is likely to play in bringing a sustainable food supply
to impoverished nations while, at the same time, contributing to St.
Louis' economic growth.

The center's spokesman, Rob Rose, says about a third of Africa's cassava
crop is now lost to disease. The center hopes to help develop a plant
that has better resistance to disease and increased nutritional content.
He predicts that will happen in another seven years. One challenge is to
overcome African concerns about genetically modified crops. Rose says
European nations, including France, are slowly becoming more accepting of
these crops, and he expects Africa to follow.

It's in Africa's best interest to embrace this promising technology. I
welcome the day when news of a revolution in Africa refers to strides in
agriculture, rather than a political coup.

                                  PART II
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TITLE:  GM cassava uses viral gene to fight disease
SOURCE: SciDev.Net, UK, by Wagdy Sawahel
DATE:   15 July 2005

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GM cassava uses viral gene to fight disease

Researchers have used genes from a virus that periodically devastates
cassava crops in Africa to create cassava plants that can resist the
virus. The finding could save African farmers large economic losses.

African cassava mosaic virus is transmitted to cassava by whiteflies when
they feed on the plant. In parts of East and Central Africa, epidemics of
the disease can lead to total losses of harvests.

So far, the only way to fight the virus is by using massive doses of
insecticide to kill whiteflies. But this can be prohibitively expensive
for subsistence farmers and can threaten their health and that of
surrounding plants and animals.

Now, Peng Zhang and colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich have used the virus's own genetic material as a
weapon against it.

Three genes are essential for the virus to replicate. Each of these
carries the code for a piece of RNA, a kind of genetic material similar
to DNA.

RNA can be inactivated when a matching strand binds to it. Knowing the
structure of the gene that makes the RNA allows researchers to create
matching genes.

This is exactly what Zhang's team did. They created 'matching' genes for
the three crucial strands of RNA and inserted these into cassava plants.

They expected that whenever the modified cassava cells were infected by
the virus, the RNA made by the inserted genes would find and stick to the
viral RNA, inactivating it and preventing the virus from replicating.

In tests, when the plants were exposed to small amounts of the virus, the
researchers could see no signs of disease, suggesting their theory was

With higher doses of the virus, symptoms were reduced.

Zhang told SciDev.Net that although the modified cassava plants were much
more resistant to the virus, experiments under natural conditions were
needed to confirm the method's effectiveness.

His research group plans to work with others in Kenya, Nigeria, the
United Kingdom and United States to conduct these experiments.

Zhan's team published their findings in the July issue of Plant
Biotechnology Journal.

Reference: Plant Biotechnology Journal 3, 385 (2005)

                                  PART III
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TITLE:  New project to help improve the diet of the world's poor
SOURCE: University of Bath, UK
DATE:   19 Jul 2005

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New project to help improve the diet of the world's poor

Scientists at the University of Bath will be taking part in an
international £4.2 million ($7.5 million) research project that could
help millions of people avoid serious health problems caused by poor

The BioCassava Plus project will improve the nutritional and storage
properties of cassava (Manihot esculenta), the primary food source for
more than 250 million Africans and a substantial portion of the diet of
nearly 600 million people worldwide.

The research is funded by a grant from the Grand Challenges in Global
Health initiative to Ohio State University which is leading the project.
Scientists from the University of Bath will receive over £300,000 to
support their part in the project.

Although cassava is relatively easy to grow even in poor soils and
drought conditions, its roots are low in protein and also deficient in
several micronutrients, such as iron, zinc and vitamin A.

Once harvested, the roots of some varieties of cassava can produce
potentially toxic levels of cyanogens - substances that induce poisonous
cyanide production.

In addition, harvested roots have a very short shelf-life of only one to
three days, which can cause significant wastage and economic losses.
Also, like most crops, cassava is susceptible to a variety of diseases
and pests; in Africa, cassava mosaic virus is a serious problem.

The new research project will try to overcome these problems before
running field trials in Africa and eventually handing over the improved
crop to subsistence farmers in the developing world, free of charge.

As well as increasing the amount of protein in the diet of the millions
of people who rely on cassava as their primary food source, the improved
cassava crop will be easier to store and transport. This means that more
locally-grown food will be available in areas where people are most
likely to suffer from life-threatening malnutrition.

Dr John Beeching from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the
University of Bath will focus on understanding and controlling the
problem of the short shelf-life (post-harvest physiological
deterioration) of the cassava root.

Other laboratories in the collaborative project will work on developing
new types of cassava plants that have increased levels of zinc, iron,
protein and vitamins A and E, have reduced cyanogens levels and are
resistant to the viral disease.

"This is a very exciting project to be involved in and I am delighted
that we will have the opportunity to work alongside other leading
scientists in this area to help solve a pressing problem," said Dr Beeching.

"Whilst cassava forms a very important part of the diet of more than 600
million people, it is nutritionally lacking and the problems of storage
mean it cannot reach the people who need it most.

"Thanks to the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, we have the
opportunity to apply science in a way that can benefit some of the
world's poorest people."

The research will use transgenic technologies that genetically modify the
crop so that it incorporates these new beneficial traits.

"Cassava crop breeders tell us that these problems simply cannot be
overcome using traditional plant breeding methods," said Dr Beeching.

"We have the technological ability to do this safely and in a way that
maximizes the benefit of the new crop to the people who need it most.

"What's more, once we have tested the crop in Africa we will give the
crop to subsistence farmers free of charge so that they can grow and
harvest the crop as they need.

"As new cassava plants are grown from cuttings, there will be no need for
farmers to come back to us for more seed or supplies - they can simply
increase the amount of cassava they grow year-on-year as needs dictate.

"A key challenge for us in the short term is freeing up the intellectual
property rights from research groups and businesses around the world so
that we can make the new cassava crop freely available to all those who
need it most.

"GM has undoubtedly been a controversial technology in the UK and Europe
if not elsewhere, not least because of the major role played by large
multinational corporations. But now we have an excellent opportunity to
make transgenic technologies work for the benefit of the world's poor.

"It has taken private funding to do this, and we are delighted that the
Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative has recognised the
importance of this project in overcoming one of the major challenges to
global health."

Cassava is the fourth-most important crop in Africa. A fully-grown
cassava plant can stay in the ground for up to two years and needs
relatively little water to survive. The starchy roots are a key source of
carbohydrates for subsistence farmers in Africa.

Dr Beeching's laboratory will focus on the molecular basis and control of
accelerated post-harvest deterioration in cassava roots. Earlier work by
Dr Beeching has shown that oxidative stress in cassava roots within three
hours of harvesting triggers a rapid deterioration in the quality of the
vegetable and that antioxidant enzymes and molecules play a major role in
controlling this stress response.

They hope that by targeting some of the enzymes involved in this process
they can increase the shelf life of the cassava once it has been harvested.

"Cassava that is available in this country has been dipped in wax to
prevent deterioration of the vegetable, but clearly this is not a
feasible option for people who are struggling to survive" said Dr Beeching.

"Cassava is an excellent crop, but it has problems cannot be simply
overcome. It has to be prepared and cooked in order to stop it producing
cyanide, it will deteriorate in 72 hours in storage and it is of low
nutritional value to the people who eat it to survive.

"We have the world's top people working on these problems and we hope
that within the next ten years we will be ready to hand over our first
improved cassava crop to subsistence farmers and make a real difference
to the lives of millions of the world's poorest people." Notes

The research is funded by the Grand Challenges in Global Health
initiative, which is supported primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates

Dr Beeching's colleagues include 18 scientists from 10 research
institutions and the project is led by Ohio State University, USA. These
laboratories are: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Danforth Center in
St. Louis, USA; Washington University, St. Louis; Washington State
University; the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT),
headquartered in Colombia; the International Institute of Tropical
Agriculture (IITA), headquartered in Nigeria; the College of Medicine,
University of Malawi; the National Root Crops Research Institute; ETH
Zurich in Switzerland; and the University of Puerto Rico.


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