Volume 21. Number 2. 2016

Farmers May Have Been Accidentally Making GMOs for Millennia

We have been accidentally genetically engineering plants – and eating GMOs – for millennia. That is the implication of a series of studies showing the ancient practice of grafting allows even distantly related plants to swap all three kinds of their genomes.

“It’s genetic engineering done by mother nature,” says Ralph Bock of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany.

Grafting involves transplanting a section of one plant onto another so the two parts fuse and continue to grow. Farmers have been grafting plants for thousands of years to combine kinds with desired traits. Grafting also occurs naturally, when branches press together.

A study led by Bock in 2009 showed that cells on either side of a graft could exchange chloroplasts – the organelles that carry out photosynthesis and have their own small genome. Then, in 2014, another study by Bock’s team found that the entire nucleus of a cell could transfer across a graft and be added to an existing cell nucleus – fusing the two genomes.

Now a team led by Pal Maliga of Rutgers University in New Jersey has shown that cells on either side of a graft also swap mitochondria – energy-generating structures with a small genome. Once entire mitochondria from one plant get into the cells of another, they mix their DNA with that of the existing mitochondria.

There has been growing evidence from genome sequencing that plants exchange mitochondria, but this study is the first to show it happening.

“It’s quite shocking. It blurs the boundaries between genetic engineering and nature“ because grafting has been widely used for millennia, it is highly likely that some of the plants we eat were created by this kind of unintentional genetic engineering by farmers, Maliga and Bock think. Nobody has looked for evidence yet, says Maliga. “But I would be very surprised if people didn’t find any sign of this.”

NEW SCIENTIST MARCH 12, 2016. This article appeared in print under the headline “Farming has made GMOs for millennia”

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1518644113

Climate Change Impact On Agriculture May Be Underestimated

Although researchers have previously found that increases in global temperatures would have harmful effects on global crop yields, this research has not taken into account how farmers may react to climate change, according to a study by researchers from Brown and Tufts Universities published in Nature Climate Change.

This study, which focused on an area in Brazil called Mato Grosso, found that if the patterns from 2002 to 2008 hold in the future, an increase in average temperature of just 1 degree Celsius will lead to a 9%–13% reduction in overall production of soy and corn. In addition, though, how farmers react to these changes will also impact production. For example, farmers might choose to put less land area into production because it is not profitable, or they might choose not to plant a second crop in a growing season—a common practice in Mato Grosso known as double cropping.

“Had we looked at yield alone, as most studies do, we would have missed the production losses associated with these other variables,” says Leah VanWey, professor of sociology at Brown and senior deputy director of the Institute at Brown for the Study of Environment and Society (IBES).

According to the results, temperature increases of 1 degree Celsius were associated with substantial decreases in both total crop area and double cropping, which accounted for 70% of the overall loss in production; only 30% was attributable to crop yield.

Taken together, the results suggest that traditional studies “may be underestimating the magnitude of the link between climate and agricultural production,” says Avery Cohn, assistant professor of environment and resource policy at Tufts, who led the work while he was a visiting researcher at Brown. IFT The Weekly. 16 March 2016

Dynamic Role and Importance of Surrogate Species for Assessing Potential Adverse Environmental Impacts of Genetically Engineered Insect-Resistant Plants on Non-Target Organisms

Abstract: Surrogate species have a long history of use in research and regulatory settings to understand the potentially harmful effects of toxic substances including pesticides. More recently, surrogate species have been used to evaluate the potential effects of proteins contained in genetically engineered insect resistant (GEIR) crops. Species commonly used in GEIR crop testing include beneficial organisms such as honeybees, arthropod predators, and parasitoids. The choice of appropriate surrogates is influenced by scientific factors such as the knowledge of the mode of action and the spectrum of activity as well as societal factors such as protection goals that assign value to certain ecosystem services such as pollination or pest control. The primary reasons for using surrogates include the inability to test all possible organisms, the restrictions on using certain organisms in testing (e.g., rare, threatened, or endangered species), and the ability to achieve greater sensitivity and statistical power by using laboratory testing of certain species.

The acceptance of surrogate species data can allow results from one region to be applied or "transported" for use in another region. On the basis of over a decade of using surrogate species to evaluate potential effects of GEIR crops, it appears that the current surrogates have worked well to predict effects of GEIR crops that have been developed (Carstens et al. GM Crops Food 5:1-5, 2014), and it is expected that they should work well to predict effects of future GEIR crops based on similar technologies. The ILSI Research Foundation is pleased to share that this paper has been published in Transgenic Research.

New Study Reveals Eliminating GMOs Would Take Toll On Environment, Economies

A Purdue University study presented the significant crop yield loss and other economic effects of banning GM crops in the US.

The economists gathered data and found that 18 million farmers in 28 countries planted about 181 million hectares of GM crops in 2014, with about 40 percent of that in the US. They fed the data into the Purdue developed GTAPBIO model, to examine economic consequences of changes to agricultural, energy, trade and environmental policies.

The model showed that if all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the US will be eliminated, corn yield declines at 11.2 percent on average, soybeans lose 5.2 percent of their yields, and cotton at 18.6 percent. Around 102,000 hectares of US forest and pasture would have to be converted to cropland and 1.1 million hectares globally for the average case. Greenhouse gas emissions will increase significantly as more land is needed for agricultural production, and commodity prices will rise at 1-2 percent or $14 billion to $24 billion per year. With lower crop yields without GMOs, corn prices would increase as much as 28 percent and soybeans as much as 22 percent, according to the study. Crop Biotech Update. 2 March 2016

(EFCE) recognises biomass-to-sugar conversion technologies

The European Federation of Chemical Engineering (EFCE) has recognised research in biomass-to-sugar conversion technologies which could reduce the size of reactor needed by a factor of up to 5 000 compared with traditional methods.

Dr Danilo Cantero was awarded the EFCE Excellence Award in Process Intensification for his thesis demonstrating supercritical hydrolysis of cellulose or biomass to sugars. Dr Cantero’s method uses water at supercritical conditions to de-polymerise the cellulose or biomass, resulting in a faster rate of reaction while also slowing down unwanted glucose decomposition.

The increased rate of reaction allows for a large decrease in reactor volume. Dr Cantero’s research demonstrated that his process could yield the same amount of sugar as conventional methods, using a reactor that’s 5 000 times smaller. His process is also faster, saving hours or even days compared with existing methods for hydrolysing cellulose or biomass. Chemical Technology Feb. 2016.

See or contact Trish Regis, information and communications officer, EFCE, on tel: +44 (0)7825 266814 or email:

Snippets - contributions are welcome. Edited and produced by Dr. B Cole. - / Fax 011 660 6444 with the help of the Northern Branch Committee.