Thursday, April 22, 2010

BASF GM Potato: The second GM crop approved in EU for planting

After 13 years of battle, BASF was finally successful in getting approval for its GM potato, Amflora for planting in the EU. This is the second crop approved by EU Commission. The first was Monsanto’s MON810 trait for corn that protects it from European corn borer.

Amflora will have a big impact in the European starch industry where Europe produces 2 million tones of potato starch annually. Amflora is genetically modified to produce 98% amylopectin compared to the conventional variety which produces a mixture of 80% amylopectin and 20% amylase. The starch industry only uses the amylopectin for the production of paper, textiles and adhesives. This will offer a big saving to the industry where it eliminates to need to separate the two types of starch.

Germany and Czech Republic might be the first countries in Europe to plant this potato with cultivation expected to begin in spring this year.

The road to success if often not sweet and that was the case for Amflora. BASF first applied for approval in Sweden in 1996. However, between 1996 and 2004 there was a moratorium on approvals of GM crops in Europe. When EU modified its regulation, BASF again submitted the application for cultivation in 2003 and for the use of food and feed in 2005. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that Amflora was as safe for the humans, animals and the environment as conventional potatoes but politicians created hurdles for its approval. They were not able to make decision for or against its cultivation. In 2009, EFSA reiterated its stand on the safety of Amflora. And finally the approval came on 2 March 2010.

However, the battle is not over yet with activists raising their usual concerns. The first concern is that Amflora contains an antibiotic resistance marker gene, and the activists claim it could give rise to bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics used to control infections in human. This has been addressed by EFSA in 2004, which concluded that the risk of transferring the antibiotic resistance from plant to bacteria is remote. Furthermore, resistance to the antibiotics used as marker, in this case, kanamycin, could already be found in bacteria in animal and human intestines.

The second concern of activists is the possibility of transgene (the foreign gene in Amflora) dissemination to other potatoes. The spreading of transgene from Amflora to conventional potato is unlikely as potatoes do not cross-pollinate with other potatoes to reproduce. As such transgene movement by pollen is very limited and escaped wild type potatoes have rarely been observed in Europe. Moreover, potatoes are harvested before they produce seeds and this will reduce the risk of inadvertently persisting in the environment.

In spite of the concerns being not too substantial, measures will be taken to ensure risks are minimized. Farmers who want to cultivate Amflora will have to sign a contract with BASF to ensure the potatoes will be physically separated from potatoes for food or feed uses during planting, cultivation, harvest, storage and handling. The tubers will be delivered to designated starch factories within closed system. These farmers will not be able to grow conventional potatoes in the same field the year following GM potatoes and the fields will be monitored the following growing season to destroy volunteers (plants from previous season that grow in the following growing season and become a weed).

Will this potato flourish in Europe? We will wait and see.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Communicating Biotech: Taking the less travelled path

Communicating science is a challenging task. Who is interested to know more about nanotechnology, genetic engineering, tissue culture or marker assisted selection among the general public? Who would take time to read about these technologies? Science has to be taught in a very innovative way that will raise the students’ or the audience’s inquisitiveness. Many abhorred science in schools but are hooked up to CSI, Discovery Channel and other science programmes on TV. So, when I was brainstorming with my colleagues on an event to commemorate MABIC’s 10th anniversary, we wanted to take the less travelled path…The event had to reflect MABIC’s role, the various stakeholders we have been working with over the years, our objectives, and be able to reach out to a wide range of audience and attract media coverage. We also wanted to teach biotech to the general public without them realizing that they are being taught. And it has to be innovative. That is how Biotechnology Carnival was conceived.

Block your diary now: 18-26 Sept, National Science Centre, Kuala Lumpur. The carnival is jointly organized with the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation (BiotechCorp) and National Science Centre (NSC).

So, why did I say we are taking the less travelled path? Because you will see Malaysia’s leading fashion designers there: Keith Kee, Karl Ng, Shegar Chandran, Rahman Saif and Karen Liew. And also Miss Universe Malaysia 2009, Joannabelle Ng and first runner up Miss World Malaysia, Stephanie Chua. What are they doing at a biotechnology event, you may ask.

The designers are now busy designing their creations based on biotech motifs and I trust they must all be doing some research on biotechnology. And the two beauties are going to parade the designers’ creations along with other models. As the models do their catwalk, the audience will listen to the description of the design and enrich their knowledge on biotech. I am also eager to see how biotech can be translated into art… We are also organizing a fashion designing competition among students from fashion design schools, again based on biotech.

The following are the other activities planned for the carnival (all topics and themes will be based in biotech):

- Debates for schools
- Inter-school biotech quiz
- Writing competition for students
- Poster drawing competition for students
- Colouring competition
- Pop quizzes for all audience
- Debates for undergraduates
- Business plan writing competition
- Games
- Demonstration of DNA extraction
- Seminar on science communication
- Talks on career opportunities for life science graduates
- Talks on bioentrepreneurship
- Exhibition by universities, industry, and research institutes

Lots of goodies, prizes, freebies and more importantly FUN and KNOWLEDGE waiting to be given out during the carnival.

To keep yourself updated, visit our website.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Fairer Sex in the World of Science

Girls do better than boys in primary and secondary schools. Even at tertiary level, there are more girls than boys in most universities. But where do they go after that? Why do we see most top positions, head of departments, chief scientists, and executives at decision making levels are occupied by men?

I would like to share a riddle with the readers. Here it goes:
One day, a father and son went for a leisure driving outing. Unfortunately, the car crashed and the boy was in a serious condition. The father took him to a hospital and the examining doctor said that the boy must go for an immediate surgery. The surgeon, upon seeing the boy, screamed, “Oh, my God. What happened to my son?” The question: who is the surgeon?

Most people would have their mind wandering about the legitimacy of the boy’s birth. And none would have thought that the surgeon is the boy’s mother... Our mind often perceives surgeons to be men. What more scientists.

It is ironic that we always fail to see women as superstar scientists and put them in the same category as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Alexander Graham Bell and their likes.

There are a number of women scientists who revolutionized the world in the past and there still a large number working hard in the laboratories around the world.

I recently read an interesting article on the internet on “15 Female scientists who changed the world” and would like to share the link:

In every part of the world, we need to address the constraints faced by women in excelling in the field of science, in spite of their academic achievements. These constraints could be family commitments, existence of glass-ceiling, lack of support from family and husbands, lack of support from bosses and top management, lack of confidence, access to grants, lack of equal opportunities, etc. These constraints are predominant in less developed countries. But developed countries are not spared as well.

These barriers need to be broken.

Mahaletchumy Arujanan