Enola bean update

Coincidentally, it seems, our favorite IPR-blogger Kathryn recently decided to take a look at the status of the famous Enola bean case. And lo! Just a week ago the US Patent and Trademark Office rejected yet again Larry Proctor’s patent claim on these beans.

Which won’t mean anything to anyone who has not been following the story. But no matter. Kathryn provides and excellent summary that will bring you up to speed, and resources to pursue things further. What I find most intriguing is her summary of the value of biodiversity, as demonstrated by the case:

One final point is that it seems fairly evident that Proctor’s accessing of the beans was contrary to the CBD – although there could be some debate as to whether he was accessing genetic resources or accessing biological resources. What impact have his actions had on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity? I don’t have any specific information on this but I can offer some theories.

Certainly, Proctor’s work points to the value of biodiversity. As his selective breeding of the beans went on, he found that “the roots ran deeper than other bean plants; the pods were more hardy, more resistant to moisture.” But his attempts to keep the value of the biodiversity to himself could be counter-productive to protecting biodiversity. With no benefits returning to Mexico, the incentives for the country and its farmers to protect biodiversity are diminished. Indeed, by economically harming Mexican farmers by trying to prevent the importation of yellow beans to the US, Proctor could be harming biodiversity if the farmers are forced to turn to more environmentally-harmful ways of earning a living. On the other hand, if the farming of yellow beans for export became very lucrative, this could also harm biodiversity if fields are devoted to monocultures of yellow beans with other varieties abandoned.

Mapping underutilized genomes

It seems you can hardly open a newspaper these days — or open a news website — without reading that someone somewhere has mapped yet another genome, whether human, Neanderthal, sheep, mouse or bee. It hasn’t received any press coverage at all, but the taro (Colocasia esculenta) genome has now been added to the list. CIRAD scientists working in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, and others just announced this at the recent meeting of the International Society for Tropical Root Crops held in Kerala, India.

One thing to note is that these are not all really genome mapping projects. Despite the many headlines to that effect, scientists are not mapping the Neanderthal genome. What they’re doing is sequencing it — or a small bit of it. There is a difference.

Sequencing means determining the (correct!) order of all the DNA bases — the letters of the genetic code — of an organism. Besides some very fancy hardware and software, you need the DNA of just one individual to do this. Mapping is both rather less and rather more. Less, because it only aims to determine the relative location of some major landmarks of the genome. That is, not the order of all the letters in the book of life, but rather the relative positions of the pages where some choice quotations can be found. More, because some of those genomic landmarks may be close to genes associated with predisposition to a disease or some other interesting trait. To find that out you need DNA from whole families, or populations, rather than a single individual — in the case of taro, the family was all the progeny from a couple of crosses between local ni-Vanuatu varieties. You trace the inheritance of the trait you’re interested in together with that of specific “markers” (any observable variation in the DNA sequence), and, hey presto, if you’re lucky you have a much more readily documented proxy for the trait.

With the new genome map, we now have genetic proxies for things like the yield and the dimensions of the underground corm of taro. This edible aroid is an important staple in Oceania and parts of South and South East Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, but there are few breeding programmes around the world, which is why it often ends up on lists of “neglected and underutilized species.” This map should make it easier to screen the hundreds of seeds that can result from crossing two varieties and select only the best individuals for further testing (this is called marker-assisted selection). It should therefore stimulate people to set up taro genetic improvement programmes.

These are much needed. Mainly vegetatively propagated by farmers, taro is genetically fairly uniform in many places, making it susceptible to pests and diseases. It was almost wiped out in the South Pacific country of Samoa in the mid-1990s by taro leaf blight, a fungal disease. It has recovered at least in part because a regional project (called TaroGen) was set up by Pacific countries with support from Australia to breed — in collaboration with farmers — and disseminate resistant varieties.

Biotechnology means GMOs to many people, but this is a case where biotechnology is facilitating conventional breeding — nothing to do with genetic engineering. It may not have made the news like other mapping projects, but the new genome map means taro breeding should prove a little bit easier in the future.

Trees in Kenya

There were two interesting articles about trees in Kenya in the Money section of this morning’s Daily Nation. Not online, though, so I’ll have to summarize. One piece describes how farmers in Nyeri are adopting a number of short-statured mango varieties from South Africa and Israel, apparently including things called Apple, Kent, Vydke and Tommy. This is not a mango-growing region, but these particular varieties have been found to be a good fit on the small farms of the area, to yield heavily and early, and to be good for juice. So now there’s no need to truck mangoes in from the coast. Good for Nyeri farmers, perhaps not so good for coast farmers? This may not be a zero-sum game: I don’t know enough about the supply of, and demand for, mango in Kenya to predict what will happen, but I would try to conserve those coastal varieties ex situ somewhere just to be on the safe side.

Then there was also a piece on how the Tree Biotechnology Project has been successful in cloning a number of indigenous trees (including for example Prunus africana, whose bark feeds a large international market for a prostate cancer drug) and providing planting materials to farmers. It seems previously the project’s focus has been on eucalypts. This is expected to take pressure off wild populations and contribute to reforestation, but there was nothing in the Daily Nation article about the downside of planting large areas of genetically identical clones. However, this is clearly a problem the project recognizes, as you can see for example by reading on page 28 of this brief on some of its activities:

Planting large areas of single clones will have the effect of decreasing rather than increasing biodiversity, and the risk of narrowing the genetic base needs to be managed to avoid growing pest and disease problems. Mondi has a policy to restrict planting of a single clone to no more than 5% of any planting area, and the project is adhering to this policy. In order to maintain biodiversity, the project team will select a wide range of local tree species of economic value and will feed these into the clonal production system through adaptive tissue culture research. Once the capacity to adapt the techniques of micro-propagation to different species is fully in place, there will be great potential for the project to multiply and disseminate a wide range of improved germplasm of different tree species, including those that are under threat of over-exploitation and extinction, such as ebony.

Broadening the genetic base of cucumbers

An American cucumber breeder, Jack Staub, is collaborating with Chinese scientists to bring fresh DNA into the modern cucumber. The hope is that this will give new cucumber varieties the genetic breadth to withstand droughts and diseases. The story started 12 years ago, when Staub crossed domestic cucumbers with a newly-discovered wild Chinese variety. It wasn’t easy to get the results of the cross to grow, but now the hybrids are being evaluated to see what they might contribute to domestic cucumbers. The next step, says Staub, is to cross the cucumber with wild melons, which are closely related and which might also be able to donate valuable traits to the crop.

The story is just one of several about vegetable breeding in the latest USDA magazine.

Climate change and wine

Over at CABI’s blog there’s a great post summarizing some recent research on the possible effects of climate change on the wine industry. The grapevine is very sensitive to temperature and rainfall, making it a useful indicator of environmental change. Predictably, there will be both winners and losers among the traditional wine growing areas. Not quite sure how the average consumer will come out of it, but wine bores will have a whole new area of expertise to get to grips with.