What’s happening on the cutting edge of plant science?

Image credit nancy nismo

Robot Plants that’s what!

Latest research out of MIT Sloan has revealed the ability of nanotechnology to work in conjunction with plant molecular biology. This breakthrough science is being pioneered by the work of Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering and postdoc plant biologist Juan Pablo Giraldo.

The research team “envision turning plants into self-powered, photonic devices such as detectors for explosives or chemical weapons. The researchers are also working on incorporating electronic devices into plants. “The potential is really endless,” Strano says.”

The idea began with a project in Strano’s lab to build self-repairing solar cells modelled on plant cells. Over time it became something even more intriguing. They demonstrated the ability to turn plants into chemical sensors by delivering carbon nanotubes that detect the gas nitric oxide, an environmental pollutant produced by combustion.

Strano’s lab has previously developed carbon nanotube sensors for many different chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin.

“We could someday use these carbon nanotubes to make sensors that detect in real time, at the single-particle level, free radicals or signalling molecules that are at very low-concentration and difficult to detect,” Giraldo says.

While the idea of “robot plants” might not be appealing to everyone it is certainly an exciting breakthrough in the worlds of nanotechnology and plant biology, and an interesting space to keep an eye on.

Often people become fearful of new discoveries and technological advances before taking the opportunity to understand the intent and possible implications for future development. We here at PolyGenomX have experienced this first hand when we talk to people about our cutting edge plant epigenetics technology. “So it’s GMO.” Is usually the first response to which we answer with a resounding NO!

Trying to explain to someone that we can induce biotic and abiotic stress resistance in plants without the use of genetic modification, and all its associated negative connotations, implications and press, can be a long conversation, which why we went to the lengths of getting legal confirmation.

In a recent conversation with genetic mapping researchers at QUT whilst discussing PGX’s current project of inducing inherent disease resistance in food crops, one department head described it as “being right on the cutting edge of science”, a wonderful place to be in our opinion and one that we are honoured to share with the others in this space.

A doff of the cap to you Strano & Giraldo.

For more information on their work go to http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/bionic-plants

For more on the work PolyGenomX is currently undertaking in disease resistance http://www.polygenomx.com/solutions/disease-resistance

PolyGenomX profile on Lux Research

PolyGenomX Managing Director Peter Rowe was interviewed for a profile on Lux Research Inc’s company review in it’s Agro Innovation category. The category covers;

“Three grand challenges face a rapidly-growing world population: decreasing resource availability, increasing demand for nutritionally-sound, globally relevant diets, and the increasing fragility of the global distribution system.  Supply disruptions lead to price spikes, and pressures on production like climate change, soil degradation, and water scarcity contribute to unstable yields year-over-year. Lux Research’s Agro Innovation Intelligence covers technologies such as modified crops, precision agriculture, and advanced crop protection chemistries, that promise the answers to these challenges.

Companies looking to capitalize on agricultural opportunities must be able to:
  • Understand market dynamics to foresee growth opportunities in emerging and established agricultural markets
  • Monitor the interplay between emerging agricultural technologies around the globe
  • Assess companies in the varied industries that impact agriculture, from seeds to post-harvest processing
  • Navigate constantly evolving international policy landscapes
  • Understand the complex, often distorted value chains in the agriculture industry
  • Identify new technologies and opportunities that exist adjacent to existing core strengths, such as drones for crop monitoring and systems for open ocean aquaculture”

To check out our profile click here

Climate Change? What Climate Change?

ffh82vms-139165852581% of Australians think the Earth’s climate is changing, but of those only 47% think that human activity is the cause  as opposed to natural variations in temperature (39%), according to a recent report by CSIRO.

So what are we doing about it? According to Zoe Leviston a research scientist with CSIRO “more than half our participants (57.1%) were “self-enhancing”: they tended to overestimate how much environmental action they were taking compared to others.

The way we perceive ourselves and others can influence how we respond to contested issues, including climate change. However, these perceptions are subject to cognitive biases or distortions as we attempt to make sense of the world around us.

Misperceptions about what others think about climate change extend to misperceptions about what others do.”

For some easy to implement ideas on how you can contribute positively to mitigating climate change the EPA site is worth a look.

For a larger scale plan though PolyGenomX’s Paulownia offers a great solution.

Whose Voice Are We Really Hearing?

mb_coal2-420x0A recent Op Ed piece for the New York Times by climatologist Michael Mann raises the issue of what part scientists should play in policy making and public debate, is it enough to stand impartially by and hope that the science will speak for itself?

If You See Something, Say Something

By MICHAEL E. MANN, JAN. 17, 2014 for the New York Times

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — THE overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.

In fact, there is broad agreement among climate scientists not only that climate change is real (a survey and a review of the scientific literature published say about 97 percent agree), but that we must respond to the dangers of a warming planet. If one is looking for real differences among mainstream scientists, they can be found on two fronts: the precise implications of those higher temperatures, and which technologies and policies offer the best solution to reducing, on a global scale, the emission of greenhouse gases.

For example, should we go full-bore on nuclear power? Invest in and deploy renewable energy — wind, solar and geothermal — on a huge scale? Price carbon emissions through cap-and-trade legislation or by imposing a carbon tax? Until the public fully understands the danger of our present trajectory, those debates are likely to continue to founder.

This is where scientists come in. In my view, it is no longer acceptable for scientists to remain on the sidelines. I should know. I had no choice but to enter the fray. I was hounded by elected officials, threatened with violence and more — after a single study I co-wrote a decade and a half ago found that the Northern Hemisphere’s average warmth had no precedent in at least the past 1,000 years. Our “hockey stick” graph became a vivid centerpiece of the climate wars, and to this day, it continues to win me the enmity of those who have conflated a problem of science and society with partisan politics.

So what should scientists do? At one end of the spectrum, you have the distinguished former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, who has turned to civil disobedience to underscore the dangers he sees. He was arrested in 2009 protesting mountaintop removal coal mining, then again in 2011 and 2013 in Washington protesting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf. He has warned that the pipeline, which awaits approval by the State Department, would open the floodgates to dirty tar sands oil from Canada, something he says would be “game over for the climate.”

Dr. Hansen recently published an article in the journal PLoS One with the economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, and other scientists, making a compelling case that emissions from fossil fuel burning must be reduced rapidly if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. They called for the immediate introduction of a price on carbon emissions, arguing that it is our moral obligation to not leave a degraded planet behind for our children and grandchildren.

This activist approach has concerned some scientists, even those who have been outspoken on climate change. One of them, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who has argued that “the only ethical path is to stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump for greenhouse gas pollution,” expressed concern about the “presentation of such a prescriptive and value-laden work” in a paper not labeled opinion.

Are Dr. Hansen and his colleagues going too far? Should we resist commenting on the implications of our science? There was a time when I would, without hesitation, have answered “yes” to this question. In 2003, when asked in a Senate hearing to comment on a matter of policy, I readily responded that “I am not a specialist in public policy” and it would not “be useful for me to testify on that.”

It is not an uncommon view among scientists that we potentially compromise our objectivity if we choose to wade into policy matters or the societal implications of our work. And it would be problematic if our views on policy somehow influenced the way we went about doing our science. But there is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research.

My colleague Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who died in 2010, used to say that being a scientist-advocate is not an oxymoron. Just because we are scientists does not mean that we should check our citizenship at the door of a public meeting, he would explain. The New Republic once called him a “scientific pugilist” for advocating a forceful approach to global warming. But fighting for scientific truth and an informed debate is nothing to apologize for.

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

The urgency for action was underscored this past week by a draft United Nations report warning that another 15 years of failure to cut heat-trapping emissions would make the problem virtually impossible to solve with known technologies and thus impose enormous costs on future generations. It confirmed that the sooner we act, the less it will cost.

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

Michael E. Mann is the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.”

Biomass Plantations on the Increase

biomass forestry

biomass forestry

Demand for renewable energy sources is increasing in the Southeastern United States, with projections for growth in supply via bio-energy forest plantations as a  supplement woody biomass from other sources such as logging residues.

According to Dr Jeff Wright, “In the southern U.S., projections are for an increase of up to 25 million “new” tons of woody biomass demand for bioenergy. To supply this woody biomass demand will require purpose grown plantations of various species including pine, eucalypts, sweetgum, hybrid poplar and cottonwood, amongst others. Forest plantation yields can be 8-15 green tons/acre/year on rotations of 5-12 years. Utilization of this renewable and sustainable biomass resource will be as feedstock “designed” for a large number of bio-energy applications.

In the particular case of forestry, purpose grown plantations for biomass feedstock give an opportunity for cost savings, a sustainable resource for bio- energy and an economic opportunity for forest landowners.

Bio-energy plantations include, amongst others, pine, cottonwood, hybrid poplar, sweetgum and eucalypts. Much of the emphasis has been on hardwood plantations due to their ability to coppice, continued genetic improvement programs as well as the opportunity to combine fast growth and wood properties in selected clones. In the specific case of Eucalyptus and Populus, there are a large number of commercial planting programs in countries outside the U.S.

A number of feedstock characteristics are important in bio-energy hardwood plantations. Firstly, the plantation hardwood species has to be adapted to the soil and climate conditions. The hardwood feedstock has to be acceptable in harvesting, field processing and ultimately for conversion to bio-energy. Lastly, the growing (stumpage), harvest, haul and preparation costs have to be favorable compared to other biomass options. In the Southeastern US there are a limited number of hardwood species that can be competitive for forest plantation biomass for bio-energy production.”

With its proven track record with Eucalypts and an upcoming project working on elite species of Eucalypts for a Renewable energies client, PolyGenomX can confidently say that its capability to increase biomass outputs by at least 30% would be hugely beneficial to biomass producers in the forestry sector in the US.

Rapid Techniques for Screening Polyploid Trees

Rapid Techniques for Screening Polyploid Trees

We Are All In This Together

Page_Full_Column_HR-handsA recent report released by RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests (also known as the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific) titled “Community forestry in Asia and the Pacific: Pathway to inclusive development” has highlighted the ways in which local stewardship of forests will be the future of sustainable forestry in the Asia Pacific region.

According to the authors;

“The study indicates that people will conserve biodiversity, reduce deforestation and manage forests sustainably when they derive regular benefits from them and when they are empowered to participate in decision-making processes regarding those forests.”

“As the demand for land intensifies, people and governments are facing increasing pressure on the access, management and governance of land and forests. Although there are policies, legislation and institutions to manage land resources nationally, these tools have yet to collectively address the fundamental causes of land conflict and resource mismanagement. A major reason for this failure is because the models do not adequately take account of the needs and knowledge of the people living in proximity to the forests that are being regulated. Yet, those forests are an integral part of the lives of more than 450 million people in the Asia–Pacific region.”

This is a view in line with PolyGenomX’s own values of developing cutting-edge biotechnology which enhances the performance of plants for the benefit of humanity and in harmony with Nature. As evidenced by our project with IFFDC (Indian Farm Forestry Development Co-Operative) to develop a higher-yielding drought-tolerant polyploid Neem (Azadirachta indica) for distribution to IFFDC’s 39,820 member co-ops to create self-sufficiency for impoverished farmers.

IFFDC is committed to integrated rural development and ecological up-gradation through afforestation on abandoned wastelands with community participation for improved sustainable livelihood of the landless, marginal and small farmers, tribal groups and women in particular.

In the words of PGX Managing Director Peter Rowe “This is very important work being undertaken, and we are honoured to have been chosen by Dr Awasthi to assist him in this legacy project”, of Dr Udai Shanker Awasthi the CEO and MD of IFFCO.

Raj Bharara, CEO of PolyGenomX India (PGXI) asserts that Neem is a multi-use tree chosen after extensive due diligence to spearhead the IFFCO/IFFDC endeavour for mass afforestation in India.

The project is to be undertaken as part of Dr Awasthi’s philanthropic venture which works tirelessly to raise the standard of living for India’s rural communities who rely heavily on local forests and co-op farms for their daily living provisions.

Would you like acid with that Eucalypt?

kalbar_1136

PolyGenomX has in the past, worked successfully with Eucalyptus robusta, to develop environmentally adapted polyploid varieties tailored for plantation establishment in acid peat swamp forests of Borneo. Borneo is one country that has been the hardest hit in the last 60 years of deforestation with an estimated half of the annual global tropical timber acquisition currently coming from there.

Most tropical lowland peat deposits develop behind coastal mangroves where rivers drain into the inland edge of mangrove forest and sediment laden with organic matter is trapped behind the tangle of mangrove roots. These areas gradually build up and flood less often as the coastline extends seaward. The peat deposits are usually at least 50 cm thick but can be as deep as 20 metres. The peat swamps of Borneo are nutrient deficient and have a pH ranging from 2.9-4.0. In its standard diploid state Euc robusta prefers to grow in ph levels ranging between 5.5 and 6.5.

 Characteristics

E. robusta is commonly known as Swamp Mahogany (or in Queensland as Swamp Messmate). The tree usually grows to a height of 20 – 35 m and a butt diameter up to 1m.

 It is a fast growing tree which in its normal diploid state can tolerate moderate salinity. Swamp Mahogany occurs in freshwater swamps, floodplains and poorly drained creeklines. It is usually the dominant eucalypt species growing in swamp forests and open forests along coastal lagoon edges or coastal creeks in Australia.

 Uses

Its many uses include poles, posts and exterior cladding, as a shade tree,  for soil stabilisation in wet areas, and for honey production. It is also prized as firewood in the tea industry.

Testing to date

PolyGenomX has successfully adapted  E. robusta to grow in in the low pH levels of the Borneo peat forests as well as Polygenomic lines suitable for high-salinity sites. Robusta is naturally suitable for sites that are marginal due to water-logging, but PolygenomX is confident that this trait could be enhanced, if necessary. The PGX  Eucalyptus robusta was tested independently, by the University of Queensland for:

  • Chromosome counts which verify the polyploidy state
  • Photosynthetic enhancement
  • Stomatal density/pore area and aperture
  • Chlorophyll levels
  • Accelerated growth

EuRobustaComparison

Bioremediation of Contaminated Land

Picture3The failure of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant contaminated ground and ocean waters within a radius of 30-50 km with significant amounts of radioactive material including caesium-137, resulting in a ban on the sale of food grown in the area.

In the case of Chernobyl (estimated to have had 10 times the fall out of Fukushima) efforts have been applied to using Industrial Hemp as a “bio sponge” to take up the radioactive dust lying on and in the top couple of millimeters of ground in the fallout zone.

PGX believes that there may be greater value in using adapted Giant Reed to remediate the soil, simultaneously providing an immediate income from abundant biomass and/or biofuel in the process.  The reed is the ideal renewable energy feedstock for cellulosic digestion to ethanol, or for gasification to syngas and will concentrate radioactive waste for extraction during the energy generation processes.

PGX has developed rapid tissue culture micropropagation techniques making it possible to bring this uniquely versatile and useful plant up to commercial scale quickly and cost-effectively.

The end result of a Giant Reed-based decontamination project targeting both salt (from Tsunami effects) and nuclear waste would be land cleansed to a level suitable for return to food production within a human time scale.

Paulownia

Paulownia tomentosa (also known as kiri, Empress Tree or Princess Tree) is a versatile, fast-growing tree particularly suited to Japan’s environment and culture, and offers a range valuable applications from furniture, carved artefacts and stringed instruments to renewable energy in the form of biomass, syngas and ethanol, and its large leaves hold sufficient protein as to provide high quality cattle fodder.

PGX has developed uniquely salt-tolerant varieties of this species (though at lower tolerance levels than Giant Reed – 5g/L for Paulownia Reed vs  16g/L for reed before yield quality and quantity are affected).

PGX has developed polygenomic varieties of Paulownia designed to suit various environments and applications and this tree may form a valuable diversification element for an integrated bioremediation strategy of the affected zone to bring those lands back into production immediately – and into normality within a relatively short timeframe.

Salt Tolerant Rice for Tsunami Affected Land

tsunami riceGiven the impact of seawater inundation on coastal rice growing areas in Japan (and other countries), there is an obvious need for the development of highly salt-tolerant rice varieties as a key component to returning these areas to agriculture, to production and to prosperity as a foundation for the restoration and healing of affected communities.

Quoting from an article by Darren Plett (Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics):

“Japan’s tsunami of March 11, 2011 brought a wall of water laden with debris up to 5 kilometres inland from the sea. After the surge receded, the surrounding farming area was left covered in debris and a thick, black sludge. This sludge was extremely saline due to the sodium chloride from seawater.

“Reports indicate the 2011 rice production was severely decreased by salinity stress in the tsunami-affected region. This seriously affected the livelihood of these farmers.

“Salinity stress decreases plant growth and therefore also the yield of crop plants.

“Unfortunately for the Japanese farmers affected by the tsunami, not only is rice a salinity sensitive species, it is one of the most salinity sensitive crop species grown.

“. . . .development of salinity tolerant rice varieties for release to farmers with low incomes could be vital in helping . . . . agriculture survive in salinity affected areas (and) . . . the short-term recovery from devastating tsunamis.”

PolyGenomX has the demonstrated capacity to develop deeply salt-tolerant varieties of any plant and is now documenting a recent project based on Arundo donax (Giant Reed which, like rice, is a monocotyledon).  The plants developed in that project are capable of thriving in salt concentrations half that of seawater, breaking the salt down into its component elements and leaving no waste salt in their environment.  The plants developed by application of the PGX technology are natural organisms, and are not GMO by any measure.

PolyGenomX is confident that, unlike traditional and other experimental rice-breeding programs aimed at developing salt tolerance over multiple generations, it can deliver deeper salt tolerance in less time than any other technique, and provide the added bonus of increased yield, water efficiency and robustness.   We look forward to the opportunity to apply this capability to rice varieties.

Are PGX plants GMO’s?

Because we are able to very significantly enhance the performance of plants across a wide range of parameters, the questions that inevitably arise are:

1. “Is what you are doing Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM)?”; and

2. “Are the plants you develop Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs?”

The answer to both questions is “No, not by any definition!”

If Not GM or GE, Then What Are You Doing?

We are “doing” epigenetics.

We apply our understanding of epigenetics – “the study of changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, some of which are heritable ” – to stress plants in very specific ways so as to bring about targeted responses that will enhance their performance under a range of conditions.

One of the enhancements we commonly bring about in diploid plant species (those with two genomes per cell) is polyploidy (more than two genomes per cell) which, for plants under stress, is a particularly useful – and natural – enhancement.

What the Regulators Say

With respect to polyploidy, the European conventions on GMO state:

“The following techniques are not considered to result in genetic modification, provided that they do not involve the use of hybrid DNA molecules or GMOs:

• In vitro fertilisation.

• Natural processes such as conjugation, transduction or transformation.

• Polyploidy induction.”

PolyGenomX does not use “hybrid DNA molecules or GMOs” in its processes. To do so would render what we do no more effective than all of the other failed attempts at polyploidy which exploit this or other intrusive or corruptive techniques.

By choosing the path we have, we are able to precisely modulate a whole-of-genome response to specific stressors, bring about the changes in gene expression we are seeking, retain complete genomic integrity, and enjoy heritability in the results.

The definition we apply to the word “polygenomic” is “a stable and fertile new polyploid variety induced by the application of the Lamont Process ”.

What the Experts Say

With respect to the epigenetic induction of abiotic stress tolerance and biotic stress resistance, in the words of one of the world’s leading agri-businesses, following “a rigorous process of review

of (PGX’s) underlying hypotheses” concluded, “the (PGX) technique is capable of permanently removing epigenetic suppression of genes for tolerance . . . based on the assumption that PolyGenomX technology affects epigenetic gene silencing and, therefore, is not trait specific but rather dependent on the ‘stress agent’ and its interaction with the plant (in intensity and duration) which induces native preservation mechanisms in the plant. Since this native plant reaction relies on genes present but silenced in the plant genome, we believe that PolyGenomX ability to induce resistance in a few cycles can be explained and trusted.”

What the Law Says

In Australia, one of the most GMO-sensitive jurisdictions in the world, the matter of genetically modified organisms falls under the Gene Technology Act 2000.

With respect to that Act, the short answer from one of Australia’s leading IP Lawyers specialising plant molecular biology is, “No, PGX techniques do not amount to genetic engineering nor can PGX plants be considered as genetically engineered. PGX plants are as “genetically modified” as those that have been cross-bred to obtain advantageous characteristics. Without inserting genes or extracting plant DNA, modifying it and reintroducing into the plant, what PGX is doing is conventional breeding and cross breeding, with perhaps certain steps (stresses) that may have an impact on the plant’s genome – but it is the plant itself that modifies the genome in response to external stimuli rather than there being any external genetic intervention.”

Will You Certify That Your Plants Are Not GMO?

In the words of the same IP lawyer, “It would be a retrograde step to set a precedent by providing such certification. It certainly strikes me as unnecessary.”

To put that into context in the case of polygenomic food plants, for example, if we were to in some way “formally certify” that the polyploids we induce epigentically are “not GMO’s” then should the same be required of all the producers of those other polyploid foods, the ones that have occurred spontaneously in response to epigenetic stress in either Nature or in the course of being selectively bred, including:

• Apples • bananas • cabbage • citrus • cotton • ginger • kiwifruit • leek • oats • peanuts • potatoes • strawberries • sugarcane • triticale • watermelon • wheat • corn • strawberries • seedless watermelon

What We Say

Our Purpose from our foundation has been to develop science and technology which enhances the performance of plants for the benefit of humanity and in harmony with Nature.

As our knowledge of and ability with epigenetics has grown so has our confidence that it will deliver most of the promises made by GE and GM, but with none of the risk factors.

For the record: We interpret our commitment to working “in harmony with Nature” as precluding our use of Genetic Engineering and Genetic Modification techniques – for good!