By Tim McDonnell on 20 Nov 2014


You probably know Monsanto as the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seeds – a global agribusiness giant whose critics accuse it of everything from boosting our reliance on pesticides to driving Indian farmers to suicide.

But that’s actually just the latest in a long series of evolving corporate identities. When the company was founded in 1901 by a St. Louis pharmacist, its initial product was artificial sweetener. Over the next few decades Monsanto expanded into industrial chemicals, releasing its first agricultural herbicide, 2,4-D, in 1945. In the ’50s, it produced laundry detergent, the infamous insecticide DDT, and chemical components for nuclear bombs. In the ’60s, it churned out Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. In the ’70s, it became one of the largest producers of LED lights.

It was around this time that Robb Fraley, now Monsanto’s chief technology officer, joined the company as a mid-level biotechnology scientist. Back then, he recalls, the company had its hand in oil wells, plastics, carpets – you name it. It wasn’t until the early ’80s that Monsanto began to shift its focus to biotechnology, conducting the first U.S. field trials of bioengineered plants in 1987. By the end of the ’90s, it was a full-fledged biotech company. And over the last 10 years, after a series of seed company acquisitions, it has become the company we all know and love — or hate — today.

Now, there’s a new evolution on the horizon: “I could easily see us in the next five or 10 years being an information technology company,” says Fraley.

That’s right: Monsanto is making a big move into big data. At stake is an opportunity to adapt to climate change by using computer science alongside the controversial genetic science that has been the company’s signature for a generation. Data stands to benefit Monsanto’s bottom line, too: In its 2013 annual report, the company blamed lost profits on knowledge gaps about both the climate and its customers’ farming practices. And information services could even help Monsanto get its foot (and its seeds) in the door of untapped global markets from Africa to South America.

Seeds of a data company

Whatever your feelings about Monsanto, it’s hard to argue that the company isn’t paying attention to climate change. When I met Fraley in New York in September, he explained that since he joined the company in 1981, Monsanto scientists have observed corn production belts migrate northward by about 200 miles. That means traditional strongholds like Kansas are becoming less productive, while new markets for Monsanto products are opening in places like North Dakota and southern Canada. But for Fraley, who has spent his career digging through the minutiae of microscopic nucleotides, the most interesting trends are emerging on a much smaller scale.

“Just a couple degrees difference changes when insects will hatch, or when diseases will break out,” he says. “So that puts a real premium on modeling microclimatic conditions, so you can become predictive on not only which field, but which part of a field should someone be looking at.”

Last year, Monsanto made a major investment in big data analytics when it paid $930 million to acquire Climate Corporation, a San Francisco tech firm whose original business was selling crop insurance to farmers with rates set by some of the most detailed weather data available anywhere. These days, Climate Corp’s flagship product is a smartphone app called Climate Basic. The screenshot to the left — from my iPhone, taken back in early October – shows my family’s corn and soy farm in Iowa. You can see each of five individual fields highlighted. There are 30 million agricultural fields in America, and the app has all of them, mapped with soil and climate data to a 10-meter-by-10-meter resolution.

The app knows our fields’ real-time temperature, weather, and soil moisture, and what we can expect on those metrics for the coming week. The green tractor tells me Saturday is the best day to work the fields. If I were to input data about what kinds of seeds I planted and when, it could tell me when to harvest them and how much yield to expect. A premium, paid version of the app includes other detailed recommendations – for example, how much water and fertilizer to use.

That advice, says Climate Corp. CEO Dave Friedberg, represents a fundamental shift “from intuition-based decision-making to analytical decision-making,” combining real-time climate data with records from Monsanto’s trove of field trials.

“Ultimately all of this is the digitization of physical phenomena, and using that to better predict the future,” he says.

Sprawling databases have long been an essential item in the Monsanto toolkit. Locating the genes for favorable traits in plants – drought or insect resistance, for instance — so they can be bred into new seed varieties requires sifting through the billions of base pairs in a genome, which is one reason why biotechnology has grown in tandem with computer processing power over the last two decades. Since the ’80s, Monsanto has amassed one of the world’s largest agricultural databases, gleaned from the results of countless field tests of countless seed varieties under countless experimental conditions. That’s what made Climate Corp. such an attractive investment: The opportunity to integrate that company’s climate database with Monsanto’s seed data.

With Monsanto now at the helm, a team of a dozen Climate Corp. researchers are working full-time to pull climate data from government satellites and weather stations, university research sensors, and any other source they can find. This gets fed through a pipeline of data analysts and software engineers and emerges at the other end as Climate Basic.

The payoff for growers can be huge: Monsanto estimates that farmers typically make 40 key choices in the course of a growing season—what seed to plant, when to plant it, and so on. For each decision, there’s an opportunity to save money on “inputs”: water, fuel, seeds, custom chemical treatments, etc. Those savings can come with a parallel environmental benefit (less pollution from fertilizer and insecticides). These decisions can also help farmers make money by squeezing more yield from the same acreage. This year, as my colleague Tom Philpott reported, high input costs and low commodity crop prices have led Midwestern farmers to lose $225 per acre of corn and $100 per acre of soybeans. Big data, Friedberg says, reveals how seemingly small choices – a four- or five-day difference in planting time, for instance — can have a significant impact on the final harvest and on farmers’ bottom lines.

A new tool for climate adaptation

Precision agriculture is also an essential climate adaptation strategy. Monsanto’s data tools could become invaluable for farmers struggling to cope with changing conditions, says Rebecca Shaw, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who studies the link between agriculture and ecosystems. With less water available, “we can’t afford to be wasteful,” she says. “It’s really important that we get better at understanding what the crop needs and when, and apply only that.”

The promise of data-driven farming, Shaw says, is to streamline the whole process and get the same or better output while cutting back on inputs.

Of course, data is a two-way street: Every new user of Climate Corp. software is a new source of real-time information for Monsanto about its customers – what kinds of products they’re using and how much they’re producing (i.e., how much money they’re making). Matt Erickson, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, says farmers need to proceed with caution when they sign on to share proprietary data about their business operations with an outside party like Monsanto. The key, Erickson says, is for farmers and Monsanto to be on the same page when it comes to deciding if and how that data will be shared with third parties — other retailers, for example, or crop insurance companies. It’s just like how we all want to be kept apprised of the ways Google or Facebook use our data.

“The big thing we’re striving for is transparency,” Erickson says. “Making sure farmers are aware of any secondary or tertiary uses.”

Climate Corp.’s privacy policy dictates that farmers continue to own their data after it is shared, and that data won’t be used for purposes not explicitly approved by the farmer. Still, Fraley says he envisions using data to market custom products and services to farmers; a farmer whose crops are suffering from a disease or insect infestation might get an ad for appropriate chemical treatments, for example.

“There’s a huge opportunity on the marketing side,” he says. “We’re just exploring it.”

Privacy concerns aside, American farmers seem to be buying in. According to Friedberg, prior to the Monsanto acquisition, less than 10 million of the 161 million acres of U.S. farmland were being farmed with help from Climate Corp. software. Today, that number has grown to over 60 million. In other words, more than a third of U.S. farmland is now cultivated with the guidance of Monsanto climate data. And it’s continuing to grow rapidly: According to Climate Corp., the number of Climate Basic accounts has grown from 30,000 to over 70,000 just since the spring of this year.

“The information itself becomes the business”

For Monsanto’s data push, the U.S. market is only the beginning.

Efforts to increase crop yields are especially important in the developing world. The global population is projected to swell to more than 9 billion people by 2050 — with over half of that growth in Africa. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that as a result, food production will have to increase by 70 percent. But according to the U.N.’s latest climate change report, South Asia and sub-Saharan African – the two regions with the most food insecurity – are actually expected to see an 8 percent drop in crop yields by 2050, thanks to rising temperatures and increasingly sporadic rainfall.

Fraley estimates that in central Africa, a typical corn farm produces less than a 10th of what the same-sized plot would yield in the U.S., despite having roughly equivalent soil and weather quality. Poorly bred seeds are part of the problem, he says, but biotechnology can’t fill the gap by itself. That’s because African countries also suffer from a chronic lack of basic weather data that U.S. farmers take for granted. Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) has roughly one weather station per 239,000 square miles; the U.S. has one station per 14,000 square miles.

The need for better data is becoming even greater as climate change alters rainfall patterns that have informed farming practices for generations. A 2012 U.N. study found, for example, that between the 1970s and the 2000s, precipitation during Tanzania’s main rainy season fell by nearly 30 percent. The rainy season now starts a month earlier, as well.

What farmers in the developing world do have, though, is cellphones. And that’s where Monsanto sees an opportunity to distribute its data. “There will be value in information on crops and geographies where we currently don’t do business, so it’s a great opportunity to expand our footprint and get us into new spaces,” Fraley says. “Where the information itself becomes the business, we see a lot of opportunity.”

Beyond weather predictions, mobile data services could help African farmers identify pests and diseases – text in a photo of a mysterious bug, and get advice on how to get rid of it. They could also help connect farmers in remote villages to urban markets for their crops, says Andrew Mattick, a former World Bank agricultural consultant who is currently based in Mozambique. Rural farmers are often so isolated from markets, he says, that it’s impossible to know whether they are getting a fair price for their produce.

“When you’re not linked to markets,” he says, “you have no idea how much a cabbage costs in Maputo [the capital].” Mobile data could help bridge that gap.

Monsanto is already active with data services in India, where according to Friedberg some 3 million smallholder farmers have signed up for text message updates that are essentially a simplified version of the Climate Basic app. Field-by-field mapping efforts are underway in South America, Fraley told me, and SMS services are being developed for Africa, where the company’s reach is currently relatively small.

Data tools “are going to transform agriculture for smallholders across Africa,” Fraley says. “Even farmers who cannot read or write can intuitively digest the information on a cellphone.”

Of course, data products are only part of the business model. There are strict limitations on GMO crops in India and in all but four African nations, as Michael Specter recently reported in The New Yorker. But Fraley envisions that as African farmers begin to share data about their farms, the company “will initially use that approach to support our seed business. There’s a huge opportunity to provide African growers with better seeds.”

In other words, free data services provided in Africa could eventually feed back information about growing practices, disease and insect problems, and climate conditions. That information could be converted into seeds developed specifically for African fields and sold to African farmers. The ball is already rolling: In May, the company announced the results of the first harvest in Kenya of a new variety of drought-resistant corn that had been in the works since 2008. Yields from the new seeds were twice the national average, the company reported.

The real test for Monsanto’s data push will be closer to home. For farmers who have already signed on to the company’s services, the next few years’ worth of harvests will show whether a smartphone app really can pull extra corn from their ground — and put extra cash in their pockets. Friedberg is confident that it will.

“As you start to realize that the upside is there,” he says, “everything starts to change.”

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.












The Christian Science Monitor

It started with a simple move to change the tax code so that farmers could keep more of the value of their cocoa crop.
By Chris Arsenault, Thomson Reuters Foundation

NOVEMBER 17, 2014

ROME — As India starts its version of Brazil’s famous zero hunger campaign, the world’s most populous democracy could take some inspiration from Ghana.

The West African country “has met zero hunger,” Jose Graziano da Silva, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization said last month.

Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor can take at least some of the credit for this.

It started with a simple move to change the tax code when Kufuor’s government first took office in 2001.

Taxes on cocoa, a key export crop, stood at 60 percent of the market price, so growers could keep only 40 percent of the value of their production.

“We reversed this, giving the farmers 60 percent of the profits,” Kufuor said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The state had been over-taxing the farmer.

“Farmers needed chemicals for fighting pests and fertilizers, the government paid for this.”

The investment paid off, and cocoa production doubled within four years, sending more money into state coffers for infrastructure investment.

The government then turned its attention to trying to mitigate deforestation. In 1960, more than 60 percent of the country was covered in forest but deforestation has decreased coverage to 21.7 percent today.

The state allowed landless families and unemployed people to use land where the forests had been cut, to plant crops interspersed with new trees in what became known as the Modified Taunga System.

After getting training from the state, local residents were able to earn an income when the trees were harvested, preventing additional land from being logged and improving food security for some of Ghana’s most vulnerable citizens.

Finally, the country tried to move up the value chain for its cocoa production.

“Chocolate, which is loved internationally, especially by the ladies, wasn’t part of our traditional diet,” Kufuor said. “The beans were exported.

“We saw the need to attract top quality processors to Ghana.”

Some large multinational confectionery companies moved in and set up factories, though the country still exports more raw beans than refined chocolate.

“The objective is to add value locally so 70 percent of the cocoa is processed and only 30 percent is exported [raw]. We are moving towards this,” Kufuor said.

Ghana’s per capita GDP shot up to $1,300 in 2007 from $400 in 2001, thanks largely to growth in the agriculture sector, high commodity prices, and the discovery of oil, which allowed it to reach lower middle income status and meet the Millennium Development Goals on poverty reduction ahead of schedule.

“One of the key factors [in Ghana's success] has been strong political commitment at the highest level,” FAO Ghana representative Lamourdia Thiombiano said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“They subsidized production, put resources into boosting capacity, and invested in providing services to farmers.”

“More production led to relatively better access to food,” Thiombiano said.

Significant development challenges remain, despite the improvements in agriculture, and Ghana ranked 138 out of 187 countries surveyed in the U.N. 2014 Human Development Report.

Today Kufuor, who gives speeches on the U.N. circuit and runs his own foundation, is optimistic that “rays of hope” and good policies will continue to improve food security in a world where 1 in 8 people still suffer from chronic malnutrition.

• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

The  New York Times

Nov. 18 2014


By  Mark Bittman


It’s hard to imagine maintaining the current food system without Iowa. Yet that state — symbolic of both the unparalleled richness of our continent’s agricultural potential and the mess we’ve made of it — has undergone a transformation almost as profound as the land on which cities have been built. A state that was once 85 percent prairie is now 85 percent cultivated, most of that in row crops of corn and soybeans. And that isn’t sustainable, no matter how you define that divisive word.

It’s easy enough to argue that one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world could be better used than to cover it with just two crops — the two crops that contribute most to the sad state of our dietary affairs, and that are used primarily for animal food, junk food and thermodynamically questionable biofuels. Anything that further entrenches that system — propped up by generous public support — should be questioned. On the other hand, if there are ways to make that core of industrial agriculture less destructive of land and water, that is at least moving in the right direction.

For now, many Midwestern farmers believe they are maximizing income by growing row crops in what is best called industrial fashion. (Many prefer the word “conventional,” but as common as it is we do not want chemical farming to be the convention.) This near monoculture, for the most part, fails to replenish soil, poisons water, increases flooding and erosion, spills carbon, robs indigenous species of habitat and uses fossil fuel resources at unnecessarily high rates. Despite this, for the last several years the economic pressure has been on farmers to plant more and more, even in marginally productive areas, land that requires more work and greater applications of chemicals for fewer benefits.

Incredibly, there is a scientifically informed, direct and effective planting tactic that can mitigate much of this. Called STRIPS, for (ready?) “science-based trials of row crops integrated with prairie strips,” it means just that: Take around 10 percent of your farmland (in most cases, the least productive part), and replant it with a mix of indigenous prairie plants. Then sit back and watch the results, which are, according to researchers and even some farmers, spectacular.

Lisa Schulte Moore, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been working on the principles behind STRIPS for more than 10 years. (In 2003, she worked with Matt Liebman and Matt Helmers, two other pioneers in making contemporary American agriculture more sensible; I wrote about Liebman’s work a couple of years ago.) “It’s well-known that perennials provide a broader sweep of ecological function than annuals,” she told me last week, “so our hypothesis was that if you put a little bit of perennials — a little bit of prairie — in the right place, you get these disproportionate benefits. That is, without taking much land out of production, you get a lot of environmental benefit.”

The research has produced impressive numbers: If you convert 10 percent of a field of row crops to prairie, soil loss can be reduced by up to 95 percent, nutrient loss by 80 to 90 percent, and water runoff by 44 percent. Biodiversity nearly quadruples, and some of those species are pollinators, predators of pests, or both. And, unlike some ecological management techniques, the process is not expensive.

In general, reports Moore, seven years into this process, “Though science is messy, it’s amazing how clear our results are.”

By the end of the year, there will be 17 commercial farms integrating prairie strips in Iowa and Missouri — a mere 1,000 acres or so (the corn/soy belt is about 170 million acres this year), although the program is increasing rapidly. And because it’s difficult to find fault with it, the approach has the potential to unite farmers and environmentalists in a way that few other things do.

Among the first adopters was Seth Watkins, a “conventional” (his description) farmer of corn and soybeans who uses his crops to feed his cattle near the southwestern Iowa town of Clarinda. His explanation of the system is eye-opening: “There’s a lot of land we’ve been farming that was never intended to be farmed, and those areas of poor production are perfect for prairie strips. You do that, and it doesn’t reduce overall production, and it increases environmental benefit.” (He also loves the way it looks.) Watkins claims that his profit has gone up “because there’s land where you can lose a dollar an acre on corn.”

In recent years, many Iowa farmers have believed that if they weren’t 100 percent “in” corn, they weren’t doing a good job. Because of the pressure to plant, many of them have expanded their cultivated areas beyond where it makes sense, creating erosion and runoff problems. Iowa is among the major contributors to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” a direct result of fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi water system, and half of Iowa’s topsoil has been lost.

Some common solutions to these problems — like terracing, or simply patching areas where runoff is extreme — are expensive and/or temporary. But the STRIPS experiment seems to demonstrate that being 90 percent “in” results in unheard of environmental benefits with little or no sacrifice to the bottom line. And, says Watkins, “I’ve felt for years that environmentalists and farmers should be friends, and we are starting to see that in Iowa.”

Prairie strips are both cheap and permanent, and they come with little opportunity cost. There does not seem to be an argument against them, other than that they make an imperfect — or even destructive — system less so. But while we’re figuring out a better way to do things on a big scale in the Midwest, this is a sensible interim step.



korsten, lise 2010b

Prof Lisa Korsten is a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Her research has been published in 77 international peer-reviewed, 2 patents and 110 industry publications. The latter journals are widely circulated in the international fruit sector and have thus contributed to Prof Korsten’s local and international standing in this field of science. Thus far 45 Masters’ and PhD students have completed their studies under her guidance. She has also been actively involved in presenting research work at local (237) and international congresses (85) and has offered several specialists short courses for the industry in Good Agricultural Practices, Food Safety, Globalgap, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and risk assessment. Prof Korsten is currently a technical assessor for the South African National Accreditation Systems for Globalgap, ISO 22000, British Retail Consortium (BRC) certification bodies. Six of her laboratories have been ISO 17025 accredited between 2002 – 2008 for several test methods that include microbiological testing for water, foodborne pathogens in packhouses and on fruit or vegetable products, identification of bacteria, total viable counts and PCR for Phytosanitary purposes for detecting fungal or bacterial plant pathogens. Prof Korsten is currently head of the thematic focus area Food Safety, Biosecurity, Public Health and Regulatory Control within the University of Pretoria, Institute of Food, Nutrition and Well-Being. She is also a board member of the National Laboratory Association of South Africa and the Postharvest Innovation programme of the Department of Science and Technology and the Fresh Produce Exporters Forum.


Dr Bhagirath Singh Chauhan leads research in the fields of weed ecology, herbicide resistance, and integrated weed management for the grain and cotton farming systems of the subtropical cropping region of Australia. Prior to his current role as Principal Research Fellow in The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), University of Queensland, Dr Chauhan led weed science research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippines. He has collaboration with researchers from several countries. He holds a BS (Hons.) in agriculture, MS in agronomy (CCS Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar, India), and PhD in weed science (University of Adelaide, Australia).
Dr Chauhan has more than 10 years of research experience in conducting trials on integrated weed management options and improved agronomy of new production systems in several countries, including Australia, India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Dr Chauhan has published >100 articles in referred journals (Crop Protection, Advances in Agronomy, PLoS ONE, Field Crops Research, Weed Science, Weed Technology, Weed Research, Annals of Applied Biology, etc.) and >50 articles in national journals, conference proceedings, and magazines. The publications in the diverse set of journals reflect a focused approach on making an impact in the weed science area. He is the Editor-in-Chief of a recently published book, Recent Advances in Weed Management. New York: Springer Science+Business Media. 411 pp.

On behalf of the entire IAPPS family, I would like to extend a warm welcome to Lisa and Bhagirath as our new Crop Protection Editors in Chief.

Prof. E. A. “Short” Heinrichs
Secretary General, IAPPS
E-mail: eheinrichs2@unl.edu


Daily Monitor


Posted Friday, November 7 2014 at 11:57

About 2,000 sunflower farmers in Masindi and Kiryandongo districts are counting losses after a strange disease attacked more than 2,800 acres of the crop.

The disease, yet to be identified, causes the crop to wrinkle immediately after germination before the leaves turn yellow and dry up.

The seeds were supplied to Mukwano Group of Companies by a South African seed firm, Panner.
A South African expert, who declined to disclose her identity, claimed the crops were attacked by a primary infection.

However, during a visit to the affected fields on Tuesday, Mr Blasto Byabakama, the Masindi production officer, said other varieties which have been planted in the same conditions have not been affected, adding that a virus might have been attacked the seeds.

The Masindi Mukwano agro project spokesperson, Mr Ben Mulimba, said the South African experts and Ugandan scientists are working to identify the disease and how it can be controlled.

“We are going to compare notes with both the ministry scientists and technocrats from Panner and come out with the way forward, especially in eradicating this disease,” Mr Mulimba said.

Farmer cries foul
According to one of the affected farmers in Pakanyi Sub-county, Masindi District, Mr Job Kaheru, he invested more than Shs60 million to grow close to 80 acres of sunflower but they have dried up. “We saw the problem coming. It started with yellowing of leaves as the crop was just germinating but as the sun flower was maturing, we saw almost the whole field drying,” Mr Kaheru said.



Wheat streak mosaic KSU(1)

Wheat streak mosaic virus is one of the most damaging and costly diseases wheat producers encounter, but plant pathologists have recently uncovered a way for the wheat plant to defend itself against this particular virus and others.


Helping Wheat Defend Itself Against Damaging Viruses

Patent-pending technology has shown success in disease resistance to wheat streak mosaic virus and triticum mosaic virus, among others.

Released: 18-Nov-2014 10:30 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Kansas State University Research and Extension

Newswise — MANHATTAN, Kan. – Wheat diseases caused by a host of viruses that might include wheat streak mosaic, triticum mosaic, soil-borne mosaic and barley yellow dwarf could cost producers 5 to 10 percent or more in yield reductions per crop, but a major advance in developing broad disease-resistant wheat is on the horizon.
John Fellers, molecular biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, and Harold Trick, plant geneticist for Kansas State University, have led an effort to develop a patent-pending genetic engineering technology that builds resistance to certain viruses in the wheat plant itself. And although genetically engineered wheat is not an option in the market today, their research is building this resistance in non-genetically engineered wheat lines as well.
“(Wheat viruses) are a serious problem,” Trick said. “Wheat streak mosaic virus is one of the most devastating viruses we have. It’s prevalent this year. In addition to that, we have several other diseases, triticum mosaic virus and soil-borne mosaic virus, that are serious diseases.”
Knowing how costly these diseases can be for producers, Fellers has worked on finding solutions for resistance throughout his career. As a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, he used a technology in his research called pathogen-derived resistance, or RNA-mediated resistance—a process that requires putting a piece of a virus into a plant to make it resistant to that particular virus. Most of the viruses that infect wheat are RNA viruses, he said.
“The plant has its own biological defense system,” Fellers said. “We were just triggering that with this technology.”
Now Fellers, with the help of Trick, his wheat transformation facility and K-State graduate students, have developed transgenic wheat lines that contain small pieces of wheat streak mosaic virus and triticum mosaic virus RNA.
“It’s kind of like forming a hairpin of RNA,” Fellers said. “What happens is the plant recognizes this RNA isn’t right, so it clips a piece of it and chops it up, but then it keeps a copy for itself. Then we have a resistance element.”
Fellers compared the process to the old days of viewing most wanted posters on the post office wall. The piece of foreign RNA from the virus, which is a parasite, is one of those most wanted posters. Because the virus is a parasite, it has to seize or hijack part of the plant system to make proteins that it needs to replicate.
When the virus comes into the plant, the plant holds up that poster from the post office wall, recognizes the virus, and doesn’t allow the virus to replicate and go through its lifecycle.
A broad resistance goal
Trick said it wasn’t difficult to incorporate the RNA into the wheat, as it involved a standard transformation process where the DNA encoding the RNA was introduced into plant cells, plants were regenerated from these transformed cells, and then the transgenic plants underwent testing for disease resistance.
“The problem with this technology is the most wanted poster is only for one individual,” Trick added. “If we were trying to target multiple genes, we’d have to make another vector for a second virus, then create that transgenic, which we have done. So, we have different plants that are genetically resistant to wheat streak mosaic virus and plants that are resistant to triticum mosaic virus. We would like to get something that has broad resistance to many different viruses.”
Knowing again that the viruses are parasites that rely on part of the plant system to replicate, it may be possible to shut off these plant systems to prevent viral replication, Trick said, which in essence means making a most wanted poster for specific plant genes.
Fellers and Trick have made additional transgenic plants with a most wanted poster for these plant genes and tested their new plants for resistance to a number of wheat viruses.
“We’re now able to target barley yellow dwarf and soil-borne mosaic viruses,” Fellers said. “We’ve also done mixed infection tests with wheat streak mosaic and triticum mosaic (viruses), and our initial results now are that they’re all resistant. We’re very cautious, but our initial indications show we have come up with something that provides broad resistance to these four viruses. We thought it was important enough to file for a patent.”
Fellers said this work is a proof of concept, meaning it shows that researchers have an ability now to address these virus issues. The fact that the process uses genetic engineering would mean that getting broad-resistance wheat would take some time considering the public and industry would have to accept it first.
However, Trick said they are now pursuing a non-genetically engineered method that involves turning off specific plant genes using mutations. With this method, the researchers could develop the technology and incorporate it into the K-State breeding program without regulations.
“We would hope the turn around time would be quick, but it’s still classical breeding,” Fellers said of using mutations. “It’s a matter of developing markers and getting them in the varieties. We have been using Jagger and Karl 92, varieties that are already past their prime, so we have to get them in some newer varieties.”
The Kansas Wheat Commission has provided funding for this research. More information about K-State’s Department of Plant Pathology is available online (http://www.plantpath.ksu.edu). A video interview with Fellers and Trick can be found on the K-State Research and Extension YouTube page (http://youtu.be/mXiw78MpS0E).



OLlive oil article LJStar081

Published in the

Lincoln (NE, USA) Journal Star

November. 19, 2014






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