Legume to remove nitrogen

Soybean field I’m still trying to get my head round this one. USDA scientists are developing a soybean variety (which they stress is not genetically modified) bred to remove nitrogen from the land.

The variety does not develop nodules, the little bumps on the root that house nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Now those nitrogen-fixing bacteria are one of the best reasons to plant legumes, because they boost soil fertility. Why would you want a legume that did not? So that animal producers could use it to solve their waste problem. I expect it makes sense in the hyper-specialized world that the USDA serves but, as I said, I’m having a little trouble with the idea.

Photo of soybean field courtesy of USDA.

Storing ram semen

There’s an article in The Economist (subscription needed, but you can also read it here), of all places, on the storage of livestock semen for transportation. There are apparently chemical additives available that prolong the life of bull and boar sperm, but nothing yet for ram sperm. This is a pity because semen is a much more convenient and cheap way of moving genes about than transporting live animals, not to mention safer. Which is why the ministry responsible for agriculture in the UK asked the Institute of Zoology in London to have a look at the problem. They decided to start by working out how all sorts of wild species with long-lived sperm – from bats to sharks – achieve that feat. A promising mixture of proteins called sAPM (soluble apical plasma membranes) has been identified, but the details are still secret. Could this have implications for ex situ conservation of sheep genetic resources?

An apple a day

Anthocyanins make apples red, and make people healthy, through their antioxidant action. Now we know where the gene which controls anthocyanin production in apples is located, because scientists at CSIRO in Australia measured how much different genes were expressed as differently coloured fruits ripened. This opens the way for marker-assisted selection, as colour can now be predicted even in seedlings. It seems that apple sales have been pretty flat lately, but that launching a new variety can sometimes give them a boost. That could now be easier. Now if only the same sort of intensity of effort could be directed at the marula, say.

The lure of the allergen-free peanut

Once again, the appeal of the magic bullet seems to over-ride sensibilities. Scientists at the University of Florida have identified a variant of a peanut protein that is apparently less likely to cause an allergic reaction. This opens the prospect of being able to satisfy the peanut cravings of the more than 2.5 million people in North America and Europe who suffer peanut allergy. But imagine the nightmare of labeling, accidental contamination and downright fraud? There are some pretty choice labels around at the moment. I remember one that read something like “Made in a factory that never processes any kind of nuts” which strikes me as one up on “May contain nuts”. But “Contains ara h 3-im peanuts” doesn’t strike me as all that reassuring.