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The next wave of crops are materializing in BioValley
Posted by: Prof. Dr. M. Raupp (IP Logged)
Date: October 19, 2005 08:44AM ; ;

As the green leaves of summer recognize the end of a season, they embrace
autumn with an array of heart-warming shades of yellows, oranges and reds ?
possibly as a last salute to the warm, sunny days of summer, October 2005 by
Robert Derham, Checkbiotech.

To many, a sunny autumn day is an inviting time to take a walk and enjoy
this elaborate firework display that Mother Nature puts on each year. For
some, the fascination does not stop with pure admiration ? they are those
that go further. Such famed individuals not only stop and observe, they seek
to answer those ageless questions of how and why.

BioValley, the tri-national organization that represents regions of France,
Germany and Switzerland, gathered some of Europe?s prized plant researchers,
who have dedicated their time and efforts to explaining the whys and hows of
nature, for a day of presentations about their research in the field of
plant biotechnology.

The Right to Defend

The morning sessions started off with presentations from Dr. Bernard Fritig,
from the University of Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, and Dr. Thorsten
Nuernberger, from Eberhard-Karls University in Germany. Both touched on ways
plants ?sense? a potential enemy and ?defend? themselves.

Since a plant cannot see its enemies, it has developed ingenious mechanisms
to recognize different types of danger and respond. By understanding how to
turn on, or enhance, a plant?s defense systems, researchers like Nuernberger
and Fritig are developing transgenic plants that will be better resistant to
diseases that cause millions of dollars in losses to farmers world-wide.

However, plants not only defend themselves, they produce molecules that can
be used to fight human diseases, and they can also protect and clean up the
environment ? a characteristic known as bioremediation. Dr. Bernard Kloareg,
from the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France, demonstrated how
marine macroalgae ? more commonly known to the avid surfer or scuba diver as
seaweed ? is one such candidate. Besides acting as a physical barrier
between surfers and sharks, seaweed can also act a giant ocean filter.

Noting the cleansing ability of seaweed, industry has started to look at
ways it might be able to genetically enhance seaweed so that it can more
efficiently remove toxic chemicals from water sources.

Future Drug Factories

Yet, the research with algae has another human element. These large plants
have the ability to replace large chemical production plants. Living
organisms, such as seaweed, that can produce human health products are often
referred to as bioreactors.

As a bioreactor, seaweed can be genetically engineered to produce vitamins,
nutrients and even medicinal drugs. But is seaweed the ideal bioreactor. Its
known competitors are human cells, yeast and bacterial reactors ? all of
which play a role in the development of many vitamins and pharmaceutical

Dr. Ralf Reski, from the University of Freiburg in Germany, would argue that
moss (Physcomitrella) will soon be the bioreactor of the future. He stated,
?You can think of moss as the pharmacy of the future,? as he showed a slide
of a pharmacy that was coincidentally named ?Moss Pharmacy.?

Then after the audience had a good laugh, Dr. Reski noted, ?OK, maybe not a
pharmacy, but moss plants are excellent bioreactors for the future.?

Dr. Reski proceeded to illuminate several advantages that make moss a choice
plant to produce pharmaceutical drugs, the most notable of which is its
ability to mimic chains of sugars that are added to proteins. These chains
of sugars are known to scientist as glycosylation patterns, and they can
sometimes act as a finger print of an organism.

When a human protein has plant, yeast or bacterial glycosylation patterns,
the human body will often recognize it as a foreign objective. Thus drugs
produced using bioreactors that do not mimic human glycosylation patterns
run the risk of not being as effective, or even worse, they could cause
temporary allergies.

That is why the moss plants from the University of Freiburg are so valuable.
Through genetic engineering, the moss research groups were able to program
their prized plants to produce human glycosylation patterns.

The moss bioreactors projects are headed by Dr. Eva Decker at the University
of Freiburg, and have been so successful, the university was able to find
capital to start up a company called Greenovation.

Metabolism ? a Chain Reaction

Yet, altering plants, such as moss and seaweed, so that they will produce a
vitamin or drug of interest is not always easy. That is why the research of
Drs. Bilal Camara and Thomas Bach at the University of Louis Pasteur and
Krisi-Marja Oksman-Caldentey at VTT Biotechnology, is so important.

These three researchers took the time to illustrate how metabolic pathways ?
sometimes referred to as a ?chain reaction? of events in a cell ? will play
a big role in the future of food crops.

By understanding existing pathways that lead to the production of beneficial
substances, such as vitamins and antioxidants, researchers can give plants
the ability to produce an essential nutrient, that the plant otherwise would
not be able to produce ? a process often referred to as biofortification.

The Second Wave is Swelling

Many of the researchers attending the conference were certain that
biofortified crops, or the second wave of genetically modified (GM) crops,
will be more readily accepted by consumers. When a consumer has the choice
between an average store-bought potato and potatoes that have been
bioengineered to produce cancer preventing antioxidants, or
heart-disease-preventing fatty acids, BioValley presenters strongly believed
that consumers would choose biofortified foods.

Dr. Peter Beyer, from the University of Freiburg hopes his peers are right,
because he is one step ahead of the rest. Dr. Beyer is considered one of the
fathers of Golden Rice.

Golden rice is a biofortified food, due to its unique ability to produce
beta-carotene, also know as pro-vitamin A. Beta-carotene can then be turned
into vitamin A, which the human body is not able to produce on its own.

Dr. Beyer had dedicated much of his scientific research to studying the
molecular pathways that lead to the production of vitamin A, when a Swiss
scientist by the name of Dr. Ingo Potrykus at the ETH Zurich asked him if
they wanted to embark on an adventure together.

A Golden Success

The goal of their research would be to create rice that could produce
beta-carotene on its own because as Dr. Beyer noted during his talk, ?The
rice kernel, the mother of all foods, is void of essential nutrients such as
beta-carotene, iron and vitamin E.?

?Breeding pro-vitamin A into rice is not possible, the diversity of rice
types is not sufficient.? Thus Dr. Beyer brought the understanding of which
genes needed to be added to rice in order for it to make beta-carotene on
its own ? Dr. Potrykus? task was to see that these genes could be correctly
transferred into rice varieties.

Dr. Beyer remarked, ?What we were trying to do was to convince a plant to
produce a nutrient,? because the lack of beta-carotene leads to partial, or
full blindness, developmental abnormalities, skin diseases and other
calamities in many developing countries that rely on rice as a main food

The project was a success and the content of beta-carotene has been
multiplied in subsequent projects so that the average intake of enhanced
varieties of Golden Rice will provide enough beta-carotene to ensure that
people in developing countries do not have to suffer the effects of vitamin
A deficiencies.

The next task at hand is to continue the work of the Golden Rice
Humanitarian Board, which comprises many organizations, who help the
researchers deliver their beta-carotene enriched rice to those who need it
most. Some of the significant members of the board are: HarvetsPlus. IRRI,
USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, Syngenta and the Grand Challenges of
Global Health.

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