Crop Tech Corner

Cuba Eyes the GMO Grains Game

Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
Cuba's corn yields have stagnated around 33 bushels per acres for decades; now the country is looking to start planting genetically modified corn and GM soybeans with much higher yield potential. (DTN photo by Nick Scalise)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- This bi-monthly column condenses the latest news in the field of crop technology, research and products.

CUBA LOOKS TO JOIN THE GMO GRAINS GAME

In a small step toward a goal of self-sufficiency, Cuba could start planting genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans as early as this spring. The country has secured all the necessary regulatory requirements to plant these GM grains, according to news reports from the Columbian newspaper El Espectador and Agence France-Presse, a global news agency based in Paris. The articles quoted Mario Estrada, director of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Cuba, who said growing its own GM corn and soybeans could help Cuba decrease its reliance on grain imports. Cuba imports 70% to 80% of its food each year to feed its 11.38 million inhabitants, as well as its growing tourism industry, which swelled to 4 million visitors in 2016, according to the World Food Programme. The country spent $500 million in 2014 just on corn and soybean imports, Estrada said. He added that officials are working to obtain GM corn lines that yield around 140 bushels per acre, as well as herbicide-tolerant soybean lines that yielded above 40 bushels per acre in experiments in Cuba. While those yields might strike American growers as average, they would be a substantial improvement for farmers in Cuba, where corn yields have stagnated around 30 bushels per acre for corn, and soybean production is almost nonexistent, according to the USDA.

See the El Espectador article here: http://bit.ly/… and the AFP article here: http://bit.ly/…

SCIENTISTS FIND CRISPR'S OFF SWITCH

CRISPR-Cas9, the new gene-editing tool that could revolutionize fields like agriculture and medicine, moves very fast. The speed with which it allows scientists to cut and paste parts of an organism's genome is arguably the technique's most attractive quality. But some researchers have been hunting for a way to turn CRISPR off just as quickly -- and now they've succeeded. The discovery was recently published by Joseph Bondy-Denomy, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of California-San Francisco and his post-doctoral researcher Benjamin Rauch. The two scientists identified important proteins produced by viruses that can switch off the CRISPR-Cas9 system. These "anti-CRISPR" proteins developed naturally during the evolution of viruses, as an attempt to get around the CRISPR system, which in turn occurs naturally as part of a bacteria's defense system against viruses.

The two scientists hope that their discovery will make CRISPR a safer and more easily controlled, genetic-engineering technique. The longer the CRISPR system is active within an organism's cells, the higher the danger that the system could mistakenly make off-target cuts and changes. An off switch would be a valuable tool to make sure this doesn't occur, Bondy-Denomy said in a UCSF press release. "Researchers and the public are reasonably concerned about CRISPR being so powerful that it potentially gets put to dangerous uses," he said. "These inhibitors provide a mechanism to block nefarious or out-of-control CRISPR applications, making it safer to explore all the ways this technology can be used to help people."

See the press release here: http://bit.ly/… and the study here: http://bit.ly/…

RESEARCHERS SEEK TO STRETCH CORN

Belgian scientists are the latest victors in the hunt for bigger corn ears. A team of researchers from VIB, a life sciences research institute based in Flanders, Belgium, has honed in on a gene that controls aspects of plant growth, including how large its leaves and ears grow. The team genetically engineered corn plants to overexpress this gene, called PLA1, which allows corn plants to grow for longer, with impressive results. "We have succeeded in significantly boosting biomass and seed production by increasing PLA1 expression in the plant, which leads to a yield increase of 10% to 15% on the same agricultural area," lead plant scientist Dirk Inze said in a VIB press release. As a bonus, researchers are also finding that the gene plays a role in drought response, by compensating for some of the growth slowdown that occurs when plants encounter short water supplies.

Making bigger ears of corn has long been a goal of corn researchers. Last year, American scientists increased the yield of experimental corn plants by up to 50%, by tweaking chemical signals to allow more stem cell growth. See the Crop Tech Corner that featured this discovery here: http://bit.ly/…

See the VIB press release here: http://bit.ly/… and the Belgian scientists' study here: http://go.nature.com/…

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(PS/BAS)