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July 2006 Updates

Bollworms Feeding on Bt Cotton in Arkansas

By Lamar James
Delta Farm Press
July 28, 2006

Bollworms have been showing up in cotton fields across Arkansas. They're especially prevalent in south Arkansas, said Glenn Studebaker, entomologist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

"They began showing up at the end of last week (July 16-22) in south Arkansas and now they're in north Arkansas," Studebaker said. "We're seeing pretty heavy numbers."

The entomologist said insect numbers tend to "blow up" in July and August. Worms tend to get worse this time of year in cotton as do the late-season insects, plant bugs and stink bugs.

"The big problem is that farmers are finding damage in Bollgard cotton, Bt cotton genetically modified to provide protection against tobacco budworms. Usually, they provide some protection against bollworms. But this year seems to be worse. Farmers are having to spray a lot of Bt cotton for bollworms."

Studebaker said the insects are feeding in the terminal area on the upper plant. Usually, if they survive on Bt cotton, they feed from the lower portion of the plant.

Why isn?t the variety providing some degree of protection?

"It's too early to say why yet. It could be a natural cycle or it could be growing tolerance for Bt in these insects," Studebaker said.

"Farmers have been growing Bt cotton for about 10 years. Bollworms always had some tolerance to Bt, but after 10 years, we may have been selecting for insects that are more tolerant."

He said the good news is that dual genetically protected Bt, Bollgard II, cotton is still holding up well against bollworms and tobacco budworms. This variety has two proteins that provide double protection.

The single protein Bt variety is working well to protect against budworms.

If bollworms are becoming more tolerant of Bt cotton, what will that mean to farmers?

"It could mean that more farmers will switch to Monsanto's Bollgard II or Dow's Wide Strike if we continue to see more bollworm damage to regular Bollgard," Studebaker said. "The only problem is these are more expensive."

Meanwhile, farmers with Bt cotton being damaged by bollworms are having to spray with pyrethroid insecticides. But Studebaker said it's never a good thing when farmers have to spray costly insecticides.

In conventional cotton that doesn't offer genetic protection, farmers are seeing budworms and bollworms. They should spray pyrethoroids mixed with Tracer or Denim, Studebaker said.

Unfortunately, it hits harder in a year like this when farmers are facing lost profit from high fuel and fertilizer prices. While spraying decreases their profits, Studebaker said farmers can't afford to let insects steal their yields by not spraying.

He said farmers need to make sure their cotton fields are scouted for insects. He said they also need to check soybean and grain sorghum fields for bollworms, since they also feed on these crops.

Lamar James is an Arkansas Extension Communications Specialist



By Gregor Wolbring
July 31, 2006

Nanoforum, a group from Europe, says in its recent report on Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food that food is nanofood when "nanotechnology techniques or tools are used during cultivation, production, processing, or packaging of the food. It does not mean atomically modified food or food produced by nanomachines." Although the definition seems to be artificially narrow with this exclusion, it still gives a good idea of how much food will be nanofood in the future.

The second Nano4Food Conference is around the corner. According to the conference webpage, nanotechnology will be able to solve a variety of problems in the food industry by enabling increases in productivity and cost-effectiveness; providing better food processing, packaging and logistics; helping in the design of new healthier and tastier products; and providing better food safety and quality assurance.

Envisioned applications are nanoscale biosensors for pathogen detection and diagnosis; nano-delivery of bioactive/nutrient ingredients in foodstuffs through improved knowledge of food materials at the nanoscale; and nanoscale filtration systems for improved texture modification.

According to the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy "more than 180 applications are in different developing stages and a few of them are on the market already. The nanofood market is expected to surge from 2.6 bn. US dollars today to 7.0 bn. US dollars in 2006 and to 20.4 bn. US dollars in 2010. More than 200 companies around the world are today active in research and development. USA is the leader followed by Japan and China. By 2010 Asian with more than 50 percent of the world population will be the biggest market for nanofood with the leading of China."

Nanotechnology is envisioned to be usedin food production, processing, preservation, flavor and color improvement, hygiene, safety and packaging. Nanomaterials include nanocomposites, nanoclays, nanotubes and others. Nanosensors, nanoimaging and nanochips will be used, as will nanofilters. Nano delivery systems will use nanocapsules, nanocochleates, nanoballs, nanodevices, nanomachines and nanorobots.

Two annexes to the report Down on the Farm by the ETC Group give further ideas of where nanofood is heading: Annex 1: Nanotech R&D at Major Food and Beverage Corporations; and Annex 2: Nano Patents for Food and Food Packaging.

Nano-Nutraceuticals and Nano-Functional Food

Agri-Food Canada defines nutraceuticals and functional foods as "food components that provide demonstrated physiological benefits or reduce the risk of chronic disease, above and beyond their basic nutritional functions. A functional food is similar to a conventional food, while a nutraceutical is isolated from a food and sold in dosage form, in both cases the active components occur naturally in the food."

Biofortified" foods (fortified with vitamins, minerals, etc.) are another development (see the golden rice debate).

Bio-engineering and genetics have so far been envisioned as tools to produce more nutritious and functional food. But nanotechnology is moving fast into this area. The Nanoforum report on Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food gives many examples.

  • Nanocapsules -- "Nanocapsules containing tuna fish oil (a source of omega 3 fatty acids) in "Tip-Top" Up bread."

  • Nano-sized Self-assembled Liquid Structures --"The Israeli Company Nutralease, utilises Nano-sized Self-assembled Liquid Structures (NSSL) technology to deliver nutrients in nanosized particles to cells. Nutraceuticals that have been incorporated in the carriers include lycopene, beta-carotene, lutein, phytosterols, CoQ10 and DHA/EPA." "The technology has already been adopted and marketed by Shemen Industries to deliver Canola Activa oil."

  • Nanocochleates -- "Biodelivery Sciences International have developed nanocochleates, which are 50 nm coiled nanoparticles and can be used to deliver nutrients such as vitamins, lycopene, and omega fatty acids more efficiently to cells, without affecting the colour or taste of food."

  • Interactive and Smart Foods -- "Kraft foods have established a consortium of research groups from 15 universities to look into the applications of nanotechnology to produce interactive foods. These will allow the consumer to choose between different flavours and colours. The consortium also has plans to develop smart foods which will release nutrients in response to deficiencies detected by nanosensors, and nanocapsules which will be ingested with food, but remain dormant until activated. All these new developments will make the concept of super foodstuffs a reality, and these are expected to offer many different potential benefits including increased energy, improved cognitive functions, better immune function, and antiaging benefits."

  • Nano-carriers -- "The German company Aquanova has developed a new technology which combines two active substances for fat reduction and satiety into a single nano-carrier (micelles of average 30 nm diameter), an innovation said to be a new approach to intelligent weight management. Called NovaSOL Sustain, it uses CoQ1O to address fat reduction and alpha-lipoic acid for satiety. The NovaSol technology has also been used to create a vitamin E preparation that does not cloud liquids, called SoluE, and a vitamin C preparation called SoluC. The NovaSOL product can be used to introduce other dietary supplements as it protects contents from stomach acids. 43 In a different strategy, Unilever is developing low fat ice creams by decreasing the size of emulsion particles that give ice-cream its texture. By doing so it hopes to use up to 90% less of the emulsion and decrease fat content from 16% to about 1%."

The Nanoforum report provides other evidence that nanotechnology is now finding broad application:

"The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the US has produced a consumer database of marketed nanotechnology and has so far identified more than 15 items which have a direct relation to the food industry. The list includes nanoceuticals developed by RBC Life Sciences and Canola Activa oil developed by Shemen Industries; the use of silver nanoparticles in refrigerators manufactured by LG Electricals, Samsung and Daewoo to inhibit bacterial growth and eliminate odours; All Spray For Life® which is manufactured by Health Plus International and uses a newly-designed pre-metered, non-aerosol Nanoceautical Delivery System (NDS) for transmucosal administration of dietary supplements, resulting in increased-bioavailability compared with gastrointestinal absorption. A detailed list of products is available on the website."

According the report Down on the Farm by the ETC Group, BASF produces a nano-scale version of carotenoids, a class of food additives which it sells to major food and beverage companies worldwide for use in lemonades, fruit juices and margarines.

Taste Nanology and StabilEase are two recent examples of products developed by the California-based company Blue Pacific Flavors.

Questions Raised

The report Down on the Farm by the ETC Group -- and others -- show that the issue is not simple. Questions have to be asked, such as: Are high-tech solutions the best option or are low-tech or no-tech solutions available, possible, and more feasible and effective? Golden rice is often used as an example for a high-tech solution to vitamin A deficiency but aren’t there other -- maybe better and cheaper -- ways available to deal with vitamin A deficiency? It is not self-evident or a forgone conclusion that high technology is the best or only solution for poverty, hunger and malnutrition (see UN report).

The Choice is Yours

Food is very important. It is your choice whether or not to get involved in the discourse on the scientific and technological modification of food. According to the UK food regulator, 'gaps' in regulating nanotechnology exist. It is your choice whether or not to get involved to make sure that these gaps are closed. It is also your choice to look at issues below the surface. In the case of nutraceuticals, for example, what is the best way to use bio, genetic, nano, low-tech, no-tech and social measures (or a combination) to eliminate malnutrition and disease -- especially for people in low-income countries.


Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, science and technology ethicist, disability/vari-ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology studies researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website.


Custom-Built Pathogens Raise Bioterror Fears

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post
July 31, 2006

STONY BROOK, N.Y. - Eckard Wimmer knows of a shortcut terrorists could someday use to get their hands on the lethal viruses that cause Ebola and smallpox. He knows it exceptionally well, because he discovered it himself.

In 2002, the German-born molecular geneticist startled the scientific world by creating the first live, fully artificial virus in the lab. It was a variation of the bug that causes polio, yet different from any virus known to nature. And Wimmer built it from scratch.

The virus was made wholly from nonliving parts, using equipment and chemicals on hand in Wimmer's small laboratory at the State University of New York here on Long Island. The most crucial part, the genetic code, was picked up for free on the Internet. Hundreds of tiny bits of viral DNA were purchased online, with final assembly in the lab.

Wimmer intended to sound a warning, to show that science had crossed a threshold into an era in which genetically altered and made-from-scratch germ weapons were feasible. But in the four years since, other scientists have made advances faster than Wimmer imagined possible. Government officials, and scientists such as Wimmer, are only beginning to grasp the implications.

"The future," he said, "has already come."

Five years ago, deadly anthrax attacks forced Americans to confront the suddenly real prospect of bioterrorism. Since then the Bush administration has poured billions of dollars into building a defensive wall of drugs, vaccines and special sensors that can detect dangerous pathogens. But already, technology is hurtling past it. While government scientists press their search for new drugs for old foes such as classic anthrax, a revolution in biology has ushered in an age of engineered microbes and novel ways to make them.

The new technology opens the door to new tools for defeating disease and saving lives. But today, in hundreds of labs worldwide, it is also possible to transform common intestinal microbes into killers. Or to make deadly strains even more lethal. Or to resurrect bygone killers, such the 1918 influenza. Or to manipulate a person's hormones by switching genes on or off. Or to craft cheap, efficient delivery systems that can infect large numbers of people.

"The biological weapons threat is multiplying and will do so regardless of the countermeasures we try to take," said Steven M. Block, a Stanford University biophysicist and former president of the Biophysical Society. "You can't stop it, any more than you can stop the progress of mankind. You just have to hope that your collective brainpower can muster more resources than your adversaries'."

The Bush administration has acknowledged the evolving threat, and last year it appointed a panel of scientists to begin a years-long study of the problem. It also is building a large and controversial lab in Frederick, where new bioterrorism threats can be studied and tested. But overall, specific responses have been few and slow.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declined so far to police the booming gene-synthesis industry, which churns out made-to-order DNA to sell to scientists. Oversight of controversial experiments remains voluntary and sporadic in many universities and private labs in the United States, and occurs even more rarely overseas.

Bioterrorism experts say traditional biodefense approaches, such as stockpiling antibiotics or locking up well-known strains such as the smallpox virus, remain important. But they are not enough.

"There's a name for fixed defenses that can easily be outflanked: They are called Maginot lines," said Roger Brent, a California molecular biologist and former biodefense adviser to the Defense Department, referring to the elaborate but short-sighted network of border fortifications built by France after World War I to prevent future invasions by Germany.

"By themselves," Brent said, "stockpiled defenses against specific threats will be no more effective to the defense of the United States than the Maginot line was to the defense of France in 1940."

How to Make a Virus

Wimmer's artificial virus looks and behaves like its natural cousin -- but with a far reduced ability to maim or kill -- and could be used to make a safer polio vaccine. But it was Wimmer's techniques, not his aims, that sparked controversy when news of his achievement hit the scientific journals.

As the creator of the world's first "de novo" virus -- a human virus, at that -- Wimmer came under attack from other scientists who said his experiment was a dangerous stunt. He was accused of giving ideas to terrorists, or, even worse, of inviting a backlash that could result in new laws restricting scientific freedom.

Wimmer counters that he didn't invent the technology that made his experiment possible. He only drew attention to it.

"To most scientists and lay people, the reality that viruses could be synthesized was surprising, if not shocking," he said. "We consider it imperative to inform society of this new reality, which bears far-reaching consequences."

One of the world's foremost experts on poliovirus, Wimmer has made de novo poliovirus six times since his groundbreaking experiment four years ago. Each time, the work is a little easier and faster.

New techniques developed by other scientists allow the creation of synthetic viruses in mere days, not weeks or months. Hardware unveiled last year by a Harvard genetics professor can churn out synthetic genes by the thousands, for a few pennies each.

But Wimmer continues to use methods available to any modestly funded university biology lab. He reckons that tens of thousands of scientists worldwide already are capable of doing what he does.

"Our paper was the starting point of the revolution," Wimmer said. "But eventually the process will become so automated even technicians can do it."

Wimmer's method starts with the virus's genetic blueprint, a code of instructions 7,441 characters long. Obtaining it is the easiest part: The entire code for poliovirus, and those for scores of other pathogens, is available for free on the Internet.

Armed with a printout of the code, Wimmer places an order with a U.S. company that manufactures custom-made snippets of DNA, called oglionucleotides. The DNA fragments arrive by mail in hundreds of tiny vials, enough to cover a lab table in one of Wimmer's three small research suites.

Using a kind of chemical epoxy, the scientist and his crew of graduate assistants begin the tedious task of fusing small snippets of DNA into larger fragments. Then they splice together the larger strands until the entire sequence is complete.

The final step is almost magical. The finished but lifeless DNA, placed in a broth of organic "juice" from mushed-up cells, begins making proteins. Spontaneously, it assembles the trappings of a working virus around itself.

While simple on paper, it is not a feat for amateurs, Wimmer said. There are additional steps to making effective bioweapons besides acquiring microbes. Like many scientists and a sizable number of biodefense experts, Wimmer believes traditional terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda will stick with easier methods, at least for now.

Yet al-Qaeda is known to have sought bioweapons and has recruited experts, including microbiologists. And for any skilled microbiologist trained in modern techniques, Wimmer acknowledged, synthetic viruses are well within reach and getting easier.

"This," he said, "is a wake-up call."

From Parlor Trick to Bio-Bricks

The global biotech revolution underway is more than mere genetic engineering. It is genetic engineering on hyperdrive. New scientific disciplines such as synthetic biology, practiced not only in the United States but also in new white-coat enclaves in China and Cuba, seek not to tweak biological systems but to reinvent them.

The holy grail of synthetic biologists is the reduction of all life processes into building blocks -- interchangeable bio-bricks that can be reassembled into new forms. The technology envisions new species of microbes built from the bottom up: "living machines from off-the-shelf chemicals" to suit the needs of science, said Jonathan Tucker, a bioweapons expert with the Washington-based Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.

"It is possible to engineer living organisms the way people now engineer electronic circuits," Tucker said. In the future, he said, these microbes could produce cheap drugs, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells and generate hydrogen for fuel.

In less than five years, synthetic biology has gone from a kind of scientific parlor trick, useful for such things as creating glow-in-the-dark fish, to a cutting-edge bioscience with enormous commercial potential, said Eileen Choffnes, an expert on microbial threats with the National Academies' Institute of Medicine. "Now the technology can be even done at the lab bench in high school," she said.

Along with synthetic biologists, a separate but equally ardent group is pursuing DNA shuffling, a kind of directed evolution that imbues microbes with new traits. Another faction seeks novel ways to deliver chemicals and medicines, using ultra-fine aerosols that penetrate deeply into the lungs or new forms of microencapsulated packaging that control how drugs are released in the body.

Still another group is discovering ways to manipulate the essential biological circuitry of humans, using chemicals or engineered microbes to shut down defective genes or regulate the production of hormones controlling such functions as metabolism and mood.

Some analysts have compared the flowering of biotechnology to the start of the nuclear age in the past century, but there are important differences. This time, the United States holds no monopoly over the emerging science, as it did in the early years of nuclear power. Racing to exploit each new discovery are dozens of countries, many of them in the developing world.

There's no binding treaty or international watchdog to safeguard against abuse. And the secrets of biology are available on the Internet for free, said Robert L. Erwin at a recent Washington symposium pondering the new technology. He is a geneticist and founder of the California biotech firm Large Scale Biology Corp.

"It's too cheap, it's too fast, there are too many people who know too much," Erwin said, "and it's too late to stop it."

A Darker Side

In May, when 300 synthetic biologists gathered in California for the second national conference in the history of their new field, they found protesters waiting.

"Scientists creating new life forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury," Sue Mayer, a veterinary cell biologist and director of GeneWatch UK, said in a statement signed by 38 organizations.

Activists are not the only ones concerned about where new technology could lead. Numerous studies by normally staid panels of scientists and security experts have also warned about the consequences of abuse. An unclassified CIA study in 2003 titled "The Darker Bioweapons Future" warned of a potential for a "class of new, more virulent biological agents engineered to attack" specific targets. "The effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man," the study said.

It is not just the potential for exotic diseases that is causing concern. Harmless bacteria can be modified to carry genetic instructions that, once inside the body, can alter basic functions, such as immunity or hormone production, three biodefense experts with the Defense Intelligence Agency said in an influential report titled "Biotechnology: Impact on Biological Warfare and Biodefense."

As far as is publicly known, no such weapons have ever been used, although Soviet bioweapons scientists experimented with genetically altered strains in the final years of the Cold War. Some experts doubt terrorists would go to such trouble when ordinary germs can achieve the same goals.

"The capability of terrorists to embark on this path in the near- to mid-term is judged to be low," Charles E. Allen, chief intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said in testimony May 4 before a panel of the House Committee on Homeland Security. "Just because the technology is available doesn't mean terrorists can or will use it."

A far more likely source, Allen said, is a "lone wolf": a scientist or biological hacker working alone or in a small group, driven by ideology or perhaps personal demons. Many experts believe the anthrax attacks of 2001 were the work of just such a loner.

"All it would take for advanced bioweapons development," Allen said, "is one skilled scientist and modest equipment -- an activity we are unlikely to detect in advance."

Genes for Sale

Throughout the Western world and even in developing countries such as India and Iran, dozens of companies have entered the booming business of commercial gene synthesis. Last fall, a British scientific journal, New Scientist, decided to contact some of these DNA-by-mail companies to show how easy it would be to obtain a potentially dangerous genetic sequence -- for example, DNA for a bacterial gene that produces deadly toxins.

Only five of the 12 firms that responded said they screened customers' orders for DNA sequences that might pose a terrorism threat. Four companies acknowledged doing no screening at all. Under current laws, the companies are not required to screen.

In the United States, the federal "Select Agent" rule restricts access to a few types of deadly bacteria, viruses and toxins. But, under the CDC's interpretation of the rule, there are few such controls on transfers of synthetic genes that can be turned into killers. Changes are being contemplated, but for now the gap is one example of technology's rapid advance leaving law and policy behind.

"It would be possible -- fully legal -- for a person to produce full-length 1918 influenza virus or Ebola virus genomes, along with kits containing detailed procedures and all other materials for reconstitution," said Richard H. Ebright, a biochemist and professor at Rutgers University. "It is also possible to advertise and to sell the product, in the United States or overseas."

While scientists tend to be deeply skeptical of government intrusion into their laboratories, many favor closer scrutiny over which kinds of genetic coding are being sold and to whom. Even DNA companies themselves are lobbying for better oversight.

Blue Heron Biotechnology, a major U.S. gene-synthesis company based in suburban Seattle, formally petitioned the federal government three years ago to expand the Select Agent rule to require companies to screen DNA purchases. The company began voluntarily screening after receiving suspicious requests from overseas, including one from a Saudi customer asking for genes belonging to a virus that causes a disease akin to smallpox.

"The request turned out to be legitimate, from a real scientist, but it made us ask ourselves: How can we make sure that some crazy person doesn't order something from us?" said John Mulligan, Blue Heron's founder and chief executive. "I used to think that such a thing was improbable, but then September 11 happened."

Some scientists also favor greater scrutiny -- or at least peer review -- of research that could lead to the accidental or deliberate release of genetically modified organisms.

In theory, such oversight is provided by volunteer boards known as institutional biosafety committees. Guidelines set by the National Institutes of Health call on federally funded schools and private labs to each appoint such a board. A 2004 National Academy of Sciences report recommended that the committees take on a larger role in policing research that could lead to more powerful biological weapons.

In reality, many of these boards appear to exist only on paper. In 2004, the nonprofit Sunshine Project surveyed 390 such committees, asking for copies of minutes or notes from any meetings convened to evaluate research projects. Only 15 institutions earned high marks for showing full compliance with NIH guidelines, said Edward Hammond, who directed the survey. Nearly 200 others who responded had poor or missing records or none at all, he said. Some committees had never met.

Stockpiles Aren't Enough

New techniques that unlock the secrets of microbial life may someday lead to the defeat of bioterrorism threats and cures for natural diseases, too. But today, the search for new drugs of all kinds remains agonizingly slow.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government budgets nearly $8 billion annually -- an 18-fold increase since 2001 -- for the defense of civilians against biological attack. Billions have been spent to develop and stockpile new drugs, most of them each tied to a single, well-known bioterrorism threat, such as anthrax.

Despite efforts to streamline the system, developing one new drug could still take up to a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. If successful, the drug is a solution for just one disease threat out of a list that is rapidly expanding to include man-made varieties.

In a biological attack, waiting even a few weeks for new drugs may be disastrous, said Tara O'Toole, a physician and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"We haven't yet absorbed the magnitude of this threat to national security," said O'Toole, who worries that the national commitment to biodefense is waning over time and the rise of natural threats such as pandemic flu. "It is true that pandemic flu is important, and we're not doing nearly enough, but I don't think pandemic flu could take down the United States of America. A campaign of moderate biological attacks could."

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