The commercial seed industry has undergone tremendous consolidation in the last 40 years as transnational corporations entered this agricultural sector, and acquired or merged with competing firms. This trend constrains opportunities for renewable agriculture
Crops that produce more while using less water seem like a dream for a world with a burgeoning population and already strained food and water resources. This dream is coming closer to reality... researchers... have developed a new computer model that can help plant scientists breed better soybean crops.
Under current climate conditions, the model predicts a design for a soybean crop with 8.5 percent more productivity, but using 13 percent less water, and reflecting 34 percent more radiation back into space, by breeding for slightly different leaf distribution, angles and reflectivity... Plants have evolved to outcompete other plants – for example, shading out other plants or using water and nutrients liberally to the detriment of neighboring plants. However, in an agricultural setting, the plants don’t need such competitive measures.
“Our crop plants reflect many millions of years of evolution in the wild under these competitive conditions,” said... plant biology professor Stephen P. Long... “In a crop field we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we have been looking at what leaf arrangements would best do this.”
The researchers aimed for three specific areas of improvement. First, productivity. Second, water usage. Third, combating climate change by reflecting more sunlight off the leaves. To address all three, they used the unique tactic of computationally modeling the whole soybean plant...
The model looks at biological functions, such as photosynthesis and water use, as well as the physical environment. The researchers looked at how the plant’s biology changed with varying structural traits such as leaf area distributions, how the leaves are arranged vertically on the stalk, and the angles of the leaves.
For example, by changing the structure so that leaves are more evenly distributed, more light can penetrate through the canopy. This lets photosynthesis happen on multiple levels, instead of being limited to the top, thus increasing the plant’s bean-producing power. A less dense canopy uses less water without affecting productivity. And changing the angle of the leaves can let the plant reflect back more solar radiation to offset climate change.
“Most of the genetic approaches have looked at very specific traits,” Kumar said. “They haven’t looked at restructuring the whole canopy. We have a very unique modeling capability where we can model the entire plant canopy in a lot of detail. We can also model what these plant canopies can do in a future climate, so that it will still be valid 40 or 50 years down the line.”
Once the computer predicts an optimal plant structure, then the crop can be selected or bred from the diverse forms of soybeans that are already available – without the regulation and costs associated with genetic engineering.
“This kind of numerical approach – using realistic models of plant canopies – can provide a method for trying many more trait combinations than are possible through field breeding... This approach then can help guide field programs by pointing to plants with particular combinations of traits, already tested in the computer, which may have the biggest payoff in the field”...
According to Long, “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predict that by 2050 we will need 70 percent more primary foodstuffs to feed the world than we are producing today – and yet will have to do that with probably no more water while at the same time dealing with climate change.”
“We need new innovations to achieve the yield jump... We’ve shown that by altering leaf arrangement we could have a yield increase, without using more water and also providing an offset to global warming.”
Next, the researchers plan to use their model to analyze other crops for their structural traits. As part of a project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Long is leading an international effort to improve rice, soybean and cassava guided by similar computational approaches, with the end goal of making more productive and sustainable crops...
A large study of child growth patterns in 36 developing countries finds that, contrary to widely held beliefs, economic growth has little to no effect on the nutritional status of the world’s poorest children. The study... found that economic growth was associated with small or no declines in stunting, underweight, and wasting — all signs of undernutrition...
These findings... emphasize that focusing on improving economic growth does not necessarily translate to child health gains... “Our study does not imply that economic development is not important in a general sense but cautions policymakers about relying solely on the trickle-down effects of economic growth on child nutrition”...
The researchers analyzed data from nationally representative samples of children under three years of age taken from 121 Demographic and Health surveys done in 36 low- and middle-income countries between 1990 and 2011. They measured the effect of changes in per-head gross domestic product (GDP) on changes in stunting, underweight, and wasting. The findings showed no link between economic growth and undernutrition rates at a country level... Notably, no link was observed between economic growth and undernutrition in children from the poorest households who were at greatest risk.
Several explanations could account for the weak association between economic growth and reductions in child undernutrition... Growth in incomes could be unequally distributed, with poor people excluded from the benefits. And in households where there was increased prosperity, money might not necessarily be spent in ways that enhance the nutritional status of children. Improvements in public services that benefit health, such as vaccinations or clean water, may also lag behind growth in incomes.
While direct investments in interventions that matter for child nutrition appear to be critical, the need for a more systematic and rigorous analysis of what specific health-related interventions would yield the greatest return remains to be conducted, say the authors...
So many interesting things to discover in this plot, e.g., there basically was no flow out of Europe, and Western Europe sees the most diverse inflow. And I wonder who and where all the North Americans are who migrated to Southern Europe!
Really useful article from PLOS Comp Bio - what should students learn in a comp bio / bioinformatics degree program? Also differentiates between the skills needed for a bioinformatics user / scientist / engineer.
A recent “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” put forth by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called for researchers to develop sanitation solutions that are affordable and desirable to use, render fecal waste harmless within a short time-span, are self-contained without the need for flush water or electricity, and produce valuable end products. Current waterless toilets – such as dry pit latrines, ventilated improved pit (VIP) latrines, and composting toilets – fall short of these ideals. Dry pit latrines and VIPs are plagued with difficulties associated with the removal of contents from full pits, and the need to treat the waste offsite once it is removed poses additional risks to public health and the environment. Composting toilets require an external power source or intensive user input in order to properly maintain the compost, are often associated with undesirable odors, and require extended lengths of time before the waste is rendered safe and suitable for use as a soil amendment in agriculture.
A University of Colorado research group led by Alan Weimer has taken on the challenge of “Reinventing the Toilet.” In September of 2012, this group (with Principal Investigator Karl Linden) received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a novel toilet that produces char from waste using solar energy.
By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go... Syngenta... had handed all financial interests over to a non-profit organization... Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology.
Now two agricultural economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening. Their study... estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes...
These are real deaths, real disability, real suffering, not the phantom fears about the human health effects of Golden Rice thrown around by opponents, none of which have held up to objective scientific scrutiny. It is absolutely fair to charge that opposition to this particular application of genetically modified food has contributed to the deaths of and injuries to millions of people...
Greenpeace, which in its values statement promises, “we are committed to nonviolence.” Only their non-violent opposition to Golden Rice contributes directly to real human death and suffering... several environmental groups who deny and distort the scientific evidence on GM foods every bit as much as they complain the deniers of climate change science do... the Non-GMO Project, started by natural food retailers who oppose a technology that just happens to threaten their profits.
Society needs groups like Greenpeace and other environmental organizations to hold big companies accountable when they put their profits before our health, as they too often do. But society also has the right to hold advocates accountable when they let their passions blind them to the facts and, in pursuit of their values, put us at risk. Let’s be absolutely clear. That is precisely what opposition to genetic modification of food is doing, as the study of the Golden Rice delay in India makes sobering clear.
And Golden Rice is just one example. There are several other applications of GM technology that could contribute to food security and reduce hunger and starvation. Skeptics... criticize GM technology for not having fulfilled this promise. But that’s because opposition has prevented these products from coming to the market in the first place. It’s pretty tough to keep a promise you’re not allowed to try to keep in the first place...
The whole GMO issue is really just one example of a far more profound threat to your health and mine. The perception of risk is inescapably subjective, a matter of not just the facts, but how we feel about those facts... “risk is a feeling.” So societal arguments over risk issues like Golden Rice and GMOs, or guns or climate change or vaccines, are not mostly about the evidence, though we wield the facts as our weapons. They are mostly about how we feel, and our values, and which group’s values win, not what will objectively do the most people the most good. That’s a dumb and dangerous way to make public risk management decisions.
When advocates get so passionate in the fight for their values that they potentially impose harm on others, it puts us all at risk, and we have the right to call attention to those potential harms and hold those advocates accountable. And this is much broader than just GMOs:
Delay on dealing with climate change exposes us all to much greater risk. We should hold responsible those whose ideology-driven denial of climate change is responsible for some of that risk.Resistance to anything to make it harder for bad guys to get guns puts us all at risk. Society should hold responsible the paranoid arch-conservatism that has created resistance to any prudent gun control and contributed to that risk.Parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids put others in their communities at risk. They certainly should be held accountable for this, and in some places, that’s beginning. Several states are trying to pass laws making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids.
To hold advocacy groups accountable, people could refuse to belong to or financially support these groups, and thus avoid personally contributing to the harm. They could belong to the groups but protest certain positions from within. They could chose to stand up to these groups in public meetings and respectfully challenge them to answer for the negative consequences and tradeoffs of what these groups espouse.
A more skeptical press could challenge these groups about the harm that some of their positions can cause. Scientists can provide hard evidence about the negative impacts of the positions of these groups... Scientists can also hold advocates accountable by demanding reasoned debate... When anti-GMO groups threatened to trash field trials of GM wheat, researchers invited them to debate the issue first, in public, with this challenge to open-mindedness:
“You have described genetically modified crops as ‘not properly tested’. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained. We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason” ...
Our values must always have a place in these debates. But when those values cause people to become so closed-minded and absolute that they deny or distort the evidence, and refuse to acknowledge the harmful consequences that our values can sometimes produce, it is fair for society to hold those advocates accountable for pursuing things so stridently that they are putting the larger community at greater risk.
Back in 2010, a young man by the name of Eben Bayer gave a TED talk titled, “Are mushrooms the new plastic?” Fast forward to 2014, and Ecovative, a sustainable Cradle to Cradle company, is making materials from fungi such as packaging. Their biomaterial can substitute for styrofoam and it can insulate walls for buildings. They can mold about anything from a combination of biomass residues and fungi.
If you’re confused by food labels, you’re not alone. But don’t hold your breath for an at-a-glance food labelling system that tells you how much salt, fat and sugar each product contains. Australia’s proposed…
As the sun sets on Microsoft’s support for Windows XP this may be a great time to think about trying out a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) operating system for your still-working PC. This is especially…
In plants, post-transcriptional gene silencing (PTGS) is mediated by DICER-LIKE 1 (DCL1)-dependent microRNAs (miRNAs), which also trigger 21-nucleotide secondary short interfering RNAs (siRNAs) via RNA-DEPENDENT RNA POLYMERASE 6 (RDR6), DCL4 and ARGONAUTE 1 (AGO1), whereas transcriptional gene silencing (TGS) of transposons is mediated by 24-nucleotide heterochromatic (het)siRNAs, RDR2, DCL3 and AGO4 (ref. 4). Transposons can also give rise to abundant 21-nucleotide /`epigenetically activated/' small interfering RNAs (easiRNAs) in DECREASED DNA METHYLATION 1 (ddm1) and DNA METHYLTRANSFERASE 1 (met1) mutants, as well as in the vegetative nucleus of pollen grains and in dedifferentiated plant cell cultures. Here we show that easiRNAs in Arabidopsis thaliana resemble secondary siRNAs, in that thousands of transposon transcripts are specifically targeted by more than 50 miRNAs for cleavage and processing by RDR6. Loss of RDR6, DCL4 or DCL1 in a ddm1 background results in loss of 21-nucleotide easiRNAs and severe infertility, but 24-nucleotide hetsiRNAs are partially restored, supporting an antagonistic relationship between PTGS and TGS. Thus miRNA-directed easiRNA biogenesis is a latent mechanism that specifically targets transposon transcripts, but only when they are epigenetically reactivated during reprogramming of the germ line. This ancient recognition mechanism may have been retained both by transposons to evade long-term heterochromatic silencing and by their hosts for genome defence.
479 individuals of European origin recruited by the Cardiogenics Consortium formed our discovery cohort. We typed their whole-blood DNA with the Infinium HumanMethylation450 array. After quality control, methylation levels were tested for association with BMI. Methylation sites showing an association with BMI at a false discovery rate q value of 0·05 or less were taken forward for replication in a cohort of 339 unrelated white patients of northern European origin from the MARTHA cohort. Sites that remained significant in this primary replication cohort were tested in a second replication cohort of 1789 white patients of European origin from the KORA cohort. We examined whether methylation levels at identified sites also showed an association with BMI in DNA from adipose tissue (n=635) and skin (n=395) obtained from white female individuals participating in the MuTHER study. Finally, we examined the association of methylation at BMI-associated sites with genetic variants and with gene expression.