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Rigid organic standards on antibiotic use leads to animal suffering, death

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

The triumph of purist ideology over compassion and science means suffering and death for organic farm animals across America.

The week-old dairy calf. . .  lay on a barn floor, her long-lashed eyes rolled back. . . The next morning, when I went to help my neighbor with his newborns, the calf was dead.

USDA regulations defining organic standards mandate that if this calf had gotten one dose of antibiotics. . . . she could never give organic milk. . . even though neither she nor her milk would retain any trace of antibiotics.

Farmers are not generally callous or cruel, but neither are they sentimental. . . . and loss of organic status factors into a farmer’s decision. After all, antibiotics don’t always work, and sometimes animals recover without them. So decent farmers wait while an animal suffers. . .

. . . .

While some European and Canadian organic regulations are tighter, farmers there can administer therapeutic antibiotics as long as the animal is treated rarely, and is withdrawn from meat or milk production for twice the time the drug remains in its system.

Some organic proponents now quietly recognize that the 100 percent ban on antibiotics needs to be re-examined, especially in light of a growing move to incorporate animal welfare into the discussion.

Others remain pure. Allowing one-time therapeutic antibiotics is “a slippery slope,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, and would “undermine consumer confidence in organics. It’s the same position [I have] as on human vaccines. They are dangerous, and that’s why I didn’t vaccinate my kid.”

. . . .

It’s time for the organic movement to incorporate science and compassion into organic standards and allow the rare, regulated use of life-saving antibiotics.

Read full, original post: The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards

Glyphosate findings spark ‘war of words’ between WHO, European agencies

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

The latest dispute to blow up around the International Agency for Research on Cancer concerns glyphosate, an ingredient in one of the world’s most widely used weed killers, Roundup, made by Monsanto.

In March 2015, an IARC monograph concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic.”

Yet seven months later the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent agency funded by the EU, published a different assessment, saying glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.”

. . . .

A public war of words between EFSA and IARC has ensued. It began with a letter last November from 96 scientists who wrote to a senior EU official urging him to ignore what they said was a “flawed” EFSA assessment of glyphosate and to prefer IARC’s judgment instead.

The letter was led by the American scientist Chris Portier, who has worked part-time since 2013 with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a U.S. non-governmental campaign group.

. . . .

IARC said his involvement presented no problem, since he took part only as an invited specialist, who does not draft any text or participate in the evaluation.

. . . .

EFSA defended its finding on glyphosate and hit back.

In a speech to the European parliament in December 2015, EFSA executive director Bernhard Url described the letter from 96 scientists as “Facebook science.”

. . . .

Url also published an 18-page response to the letter from the 96 scientists, explaining how EFSA took a different approach to IARC.

In it he invited IARC to a meeting to discuss their evidence and methodologies. IARC declined, demanding instead that EFSA issue a correction to its letter, which it alleged contained “factual errors.”

Read full, original post: European, WHO agencies in war of words over glyphosate findings

Single gene may play big part in determining how old you look

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

A single gene may influence whether a person looks younger or older than they are — with some variants adding about two years to a person’s appearance.

It might sound superficial, but there is actually medical value in studying so-called perceived age.

“Perceived age can be used to assess a person’s overall health — in the clinic as well as epidemiological studies — similar to self-reported health,” said Dr. Kaare Christensen, director of the Danish Aging Research Center, who was not involved in the study. “In terms of mortality, it is more dangerous to look one year older than to be one year older.”

Researchers tapped a previously compiled database of Dutch residents to extract photos and genetic data on nearly 2,700 people. They showed these photos to employees of Unilever — one of the study’s funders and where some of the participating researchers were based — and asked them to select a five-year age range for the subject.

When researchers compared these ratings with the subjects’ genomes, they found that changes in one gene, called MC1R, were most strongly linked to a person’s perceived age. Certain versions of MC1R made people look on average two years older than other versions, regardless of the subject’s age, sex, skin color, sun exposure, wrinkles, and pigmented spots. Researchers published the findings in Current Biology.

Read full, original post: This gene could make you look years older than you are

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Kid’s academic achievement? Scale tips towards genetics

As a parent, I’d like to believe that I’ve played some part in crafting my daughter’s future. Maybe it is egotism, but I like to think I’ve done more for her than just fed her, watered her, provided shelter for her and footed an ever-growing electronics bill. And I like to hope that will be partly my input, my guidance that will send her out safely out into an uncertain world, armed with degrees and academic accolades ready to fight off an uncertain economy, a changing employment landscape, and abundant overseas labor.

A study carried out by scientists at Florida State University, and published in the journal Intelligence came to the following conclusion: “The way a child is parented ‘will not have a detectable effect on their IQ.”

The research provides the latest twist in a controversial field. Some previous studies have claimed that parental behavior toward their children can influence how intelligent they will be in adulthood but the Florida researchers didn’t buy this. They believed the previous results were simply hadn’t accounted for genetic transmission.

For their research, the Florida scientists examined the link between parental behavior and later-life intelligence among a nationally representative sample of youths and a second group of aged-match adopted youths who were part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

The behaviors of participants’ parents were assessed, and participants completed an IQ test that measured verbal intelligence—the Picture Vocabulary Test—while at middle and high school. They completed the IQ test again when they were between the ages of 18 and 26.

The researchers say they found that—among both groups—the influence of parental behavior on child intelligence during adolescence and young adulthood was “marginal and inconsistent.”

So how do the researchers reconcile the fact that these results challenge previous research indicating that parental actions influence a child’s intelligence?

More intelligent parents are more likely to carry out activities that have previously been associated with intelligence, argue the researchers. But the activities are merely masking the genetic transformation of intelligence to their children.

This study came on the heels of another study by King’s College London researchers, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that tried to quantify the relationship between genetics and academic achievement.

The scientists reviewed the educational achievement of 6,653 pairs of identical and non-identical twins to enable them to identify the degree to which traits are influenced by the environment or are inherited. It found their scores in GCSEs (high school exams in the U.K.) were three-quarters heritable but that heritability was not based on intelligence alone.

Of course, the whole definition of intelligence is a difficult one. In a recent review paper in Nature’s Molecular Psychiatry on the genetics and intelligence, the authors define intelligence as follows:

Intelligence is at the pinnacle of the hierarchical model of cognitive abilities that includes a middle level of group factors, such as the cognitive domains of verbal and spatial abilities and memory, and a third level of specific tests and their associated narrow cognitive skills.

They go on to put it in more layman’s terms:

According to one view, the core of this general intelligence factor is ‘the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.

(via: Huffington Post)

In the review, the relationship between intelligence and academic achievement is assumed a linear one, but at the same time it can be one thing to be able to do a cognitive task (intelligence), it’s an entirely different factor altogether whether we actually do it (leading to academic achievement). So there maybe plenty of highly intelligent children, and adults, out there who have the ‘ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience,’ especially if they are paid to take part in a study, and sat down in a room, but on their own, does that ability translate to academic achievement?

It is hard not to draw on personal experience when thinking about the issue. Right now, at this moment in time, my 10-year-old daughter is doing just fine at school. Although she’s youngest in her year, popping out in early August just before the school year cut off date, she is pretty much top of the class in math, reading and writing, and well into the advanced grade for her SAT scores. But that wasn’t always the case. In first grade, following a “year out” by our family, she was near the bottom of the class in all three of the above. If it hadn’t been for a crash course in ABCs, and reading, on our part, she would have been placed in early literacy, pulled out of everyday lessons and stigmatized, and the whole trajectory of her education might have been totally different. She certainly thought she was stupid, the teachers didn’t find a much more articulate way of phrasing it (while she was there even), and it was difficult to build her confidence or motivation. But we did. That was parental contribution for you.

Using this simple example (it’s easy to find a multitude of similar ones), does parenting have an influence on intelligence? Or does parenting, or the school environment, or other environmental factors only have an influence on academic achievement, self-esteem, and academic interest and satisfaction?

Eva Krapohl, lead researcher of the King’s College London study, said:

What our study shows is the heritability of educational achievement is much more than just intelligence — it’s the combination of many traits which are all heritable to different extents.

So the basic gist could be that parents don’t influence intelligence, beyond donating their DNA, but they can influence academic achievement. But wait a minute, Eva Krapohl said that “of educational achievement is much more than just intelligence – it’s the combination of many traits which are all heritable to different extents.” So does it all come down to genetics yet again? Is simply the way I choose to parent a function of my genes?

Is this what Professor Leon Kamin of Princeton, said in a 1995 article in the Independent was the discernible “rise of neurogenetic determinism.”

In this article, the author, social statistician Toby Andrew, bemoaned the idea that genes determine intelligence was fashionable again and argued that the role of the environment was being badly neglected. As part of his editorial, he cited that speakers from the “Biological and Social Aspects of Intelligence” conference held that year in London.

Professor Thomas Bouchard, head of a long-running twin study at the University of Minnesota, asserted in the keynote Galton address: “Since Francis Galton’s brilliant outline [of the genetic basis to intelligence], there has been a steady incremental advance. All the evidence points in the same direction and that is genetics.” Professor Bouchard claims intelligence is 70 per cent inherited, whereas Professor Plomin believes the figure is nearer 50 per cent.

Andrews then went on to quote Professor Robert Plomin, who is still a prominent figure in the debate today:

The “nature vs nurture” debate has become sterile and that, in the Nineties, the two camps have started to come together. The task today is to study how genes and environment interact, not how one takes precedence over another. Traits that are genetic need not be immutable, because the environment can be modified so that the genes never become manifest.

But it doesn’t seem like those two have really come together. The recent spate of studies  would indicate that scientists don’t believe the two are interacting but that genes are running the show. Even in 1995, Plomin argued:

Quantitative measures previously thought to reflect environmental factors should now be recognized in large part to be genetic in origin as well. For example, in the past psychologists have studied the child as a passive recipient of the environment. The new insight today is that a child can actively create the environment by shaping how his parents respond to him. This, in turn, is influenced by the innate intelligence and personality of the child.

And Andrews commented:

In the model, the individual is graced with being able to shape his surroundings, but even this active element in shaping interpersonal relationships is reduced to the functioning of genes.

So, to take the example above of my daughter that means some of her academic success might simply be due to the genes she has inherited from my husband and I, both who have graduate degrees. But what of her “by no means short” stint (three years) of being the class dunce? By Plomin’s argument in 1995 could her genes have set up an elaborate ruse to get more parental attention, which then meant she then catapulted to the top of the class? I had no idea my genes were that conniving.

Hmm. And maybe my desire to want to see her sent out into the world well-qualified and enjoying learning is just a reflection of my genes too.

In truth, I don’t have much trouble accepting that I can do little for my daughter’s intelligence after having conceived her. But I personally believe that, as the King’s College study supports, my involvement can influence her academic achievement.

The intriguing question is whether this influence is also just genetically determined. In my own personal experience of two parents, five siblings and one daughter I can find plenty of examples that would suggest it is, and it isn’t. Maybe I’ll just draw comfort from King’s College researcher Krapohl’s parting shot in an interview with the Mirror:

Finding educational achievement is heritable certainly does not mean that teachers, parents or schools aren’t important.

Jane Palmer is a freelance science writer and radio journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. Follow Jane Palmer on Twitter @JanePalmerComms

Certain genes raise mothers’ likelihood of having twins

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Researchers have long known that women whose families include fraternal twins are more likely to give birth to twins themselves, and they’re finally starting to figure out why. After scanning data from nearly 2000 mothers of fraternal twins, scientists from eight countries found two genes that increase a woman’s chance of having twins—one that affects hormone levels and another that may alter how ovaries respond to them. The second of these may also have implications for why some women respond better than others to in vitro fertilization.

Unlike identical twins—who are genetically the same—fraternal twins are no more closely related in terms of DNA than regular siblings. But scientists often like to compare identical and fraternal twins to understand how much variation in a trait is due to environment versus genetics. Because of that, several large databases track twins as they age. In 1987, a young behavioral geneticist at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam named Dorret Boomsma started the Netherlands Twin Register, which now contains more than 75,000 twins, triplets, and other children of multiple births.

Researchers like Boomsma have some ideas, especially as fraternal twin births are on the rise in Western countries—for instance, the United States saw a 76% increase from 1980 to 2011. In vitro fertilization, for which demand has surged, is more likely to yield twins. Older women, who are having more children than in the past, are also more likely to release more than one egg, increasing their chances of giving birth to fraternal twins.

Read full, original post: Having fraternal twins is in your genes — and in your hormones

Burkina Faso putting GMO cotton on hold, not abandoning it

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Activists opposed to GMOs recently claimed that Burkina Faso had “abandoned” insect-resistant GM cotton, a move that supposedly spelled doom for biotechnology throughout Africa. But reports of GM cotton’s death are also an exaggeration.

. . . .

GM cotton was commercialized in Burkina Faso in 2008. . . it rapidly gained popularity with farmers because of its ability to resist the devastating bollworm pest without the use of expensive and potential harmful pesticides. That meant the farmers who adopted GM cotton used less insecticide, while earning more profit from reduced costs and higher yields.

. . . .

. . .[A]n issue recently erupted when cotton companies rejected some of the GM crop due to its fiber length — something the anti-GMO activists latched onto and tried to inflate.

Cotton companies prefer long cotton fibers that are around 27-29mm in length. But the GM cotton grown in Burkina Faso tended to produce shorter fibers, around 25-27 mm long. Did this perhaps indicate a failure of genetic engineering technology, as the anti-GMO activists claimed?

Actually the issue is basic crop breeding, unrelated to the genetically engineered traits. When the insect-resistant traits were bred into the regional cotton varieties that Burkinabe farmers prefer, genes conveying a shorter cotton fiber length were retained from the local varieties. Over time, the proportion of short fibers outpaced the longer fibers that cotton mills desire.

Burkinabe researchers are now working with Monsanto to fully “convert” local long-fiber cotton varieties to carrying the insect-resistant trait. . . . In the interim, farmers and cotton companies agreed to temporarily halt the cultivation of GM cotton to prevent the short-fiber trait from becoming more prevalent.

Read full, original post: Burkina Faso Puts GM Cotton on Hold

Microbiome may be linked to some psychological disorders

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Gut bacteria could be used to treat a range of mental disorders, a new study has suggested.

Past studies have confirmed that gut microbiome has the potential to treat serious illnesses, such as stroke. Now, researchers posit that it can also be used to cure several neurological conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety.

With the support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), researchers John Bienenstock and Paul Forsythe from The Brain-Body Institute at McMaster University in Canada are looking at the effects of intestinal bacteria on human brain and regulation of mood.

Gut microbiome plays a major role in human biology from food processing to immune system regulation and even transmission of brain signals that regulate behavior and mood.

Bienenstock and Forsythe, in their study, confirmed that gut bacteria have an effect on behavior and misdemeanor.

To test their hypothesis, they studied mice using a “social defeat” situation, wherein the researchers exposed the smaller mice to larger and more aggressive ones. Some of the smaller mice showed increased stress, loss of appetite, and less social interaction. Fecal sample analysis showed that these stressed mice have an imbalance gut microbiome compared with the calm ones.

“There was less diversity in the types of bacteria present,” said Forsythe. “The less diversity, the greater disruption to the body.”

Read full, original post: More Than A Gut Feeling: Can Gut Microbiome Be Used To Treat Mental Disorders?


American eugenics movement was dark time for science and society

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Carrie Buck was born in 1906 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Soon afterward, her father either abandoned the family or died, leaving Carrie and her mother, Emma, in dire poverty. As a toddler, Carrie was taken in, with the approval of a municipal court, by a well-to-do couple, John and Alice Dobbs, who asked to become her foster parents after seeing Emma on the street. Carrie cleaned their house and was hired out to clean neighbors’ homes, until, at seventeen, she was discovered to be pregnant—she later said that she’d been raped, by Alice Dobbs’s nephew—at which point her guardians moved to have her declared mentally deficient, although there was no prior evidence that this was the case. They then had her committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded.

When Carrie was sent to the Virginia Colony, in 1924, the forward thinkers of America were preoccupied by the imagined genetic threat of feeblemindedness, a capaciously defined condition that was diagnosed using often flawed intelligence tests and by identifying symptoms such as moral degeneracy, an overactive sex drive, and other traits liberally ascribed to poor people (especially poor women) who were seen as having stepped out of line.

Eugenics was taught in schools, celebrated in exhibits at the World’s Fair, and even preached from pulpits. The human race, one prominent advocate declared in 1909, was poised “to dry up the springs that feed the torrent of defective and degenerate protoplasm.”

Read full, original post: The forgotten lessons of the American eugenics movement

Portable DNA sequencer could keep astronauts healthy in space

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Aboard the International Space Station, six people are currently orbiting the planet at 17,000 miles per hour, taking in fifteen sunrises and sunsets every day. The view is unbeatable; the floating sensation, sublime.

But good luck to them if they get sick.

There’s nothing on board the ISS that can definitively diagnose a disease, or identify the microbes behind it. Instead, sick astronauts have to settle for describing their symptoms to medical staff on the ground. They have no way of knowing for sure if their disease is bacterial, viral, or something else, or if raiding the station’s finite supply of antibiotics would do them any good.

If an astronaut could decipher the full genetic code of whatever’s plaguing her, she could identify the offending bug and work out if it’s vulnerable to any drugs. But until recently, this scenario would have been laughably impractical. Sequencers were all the size and weight of microwaves and fridges.

Thanks to a British company called Oxford Nanopore Technologies, that’s no longer true.

In the spring of 2014, the company released a USB-powered sequencer called the MinION. Four inches long, one inch wide, and 87 grams in weight, it’s smaller than most chocolate bars and smartphones. Earlier this year, I clutched one in my hand, with room for several more. One scientist describes it as “the DNA sequencer you can forget in your jacket pocket, which I’ve done once.”

Read full, original post: A DNA Sequencer In Every Pocket

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Do genes make a murderer?

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

It was a fall night in 2006, when Bradley Waldroup walked out of his rural trailer in southeastern Tennessee, carrying his .22 caliber hunting rifle. His estranged wife and her friend, Leslie Bradshaw, had just pulled up to drop off the Waldroups’ four children. Waldroup began arguing with his wife and Bradshaw, who was unloading the car. Drawing his gun, Waldroup shot Bradshaw eight times, killing her. He used a knife to cut her head open.

He then chased his wife with the knife and a machete, managing to slice off one of her pinkies before dragging her into the trailer. There, he told their frightened children, “Come tell your mama goodbye,” because it was the last time they’d ever see her. Miraculously, his wife managed to slip his grasp and escape.

To spare him the death penalty, his legal team took an unusual approach, never before admitted in a capital-murder case. They sent a sample of Waldroup’s blood to the molecular genetics lab at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Lab techs there were told to look at a specific gene. Sure enough, they found Waldroup had a genetic variant on his X chromosome, one that coded the enzyme monoamine oxidase-A (MAOA).

MAOA’s job is to break down crucial neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin. If left unchecked, these potent chemicals can build up in the brain and cause a loss of impulse control and an increase in violence and rage. In part, Waldroup’s lawyers were claiming, his genes made him do it.

Read full, original post: Can Your Genes Make You Kill?

What’s a GMO? Apparently not these magic mushrooms

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

U.S. Department of Agriculture regulators pondered an outwardly unremarkable mushroom for two and a half years before they decided its GMO status earlier this month. . . . Researchers at Penn State had tweaked one of the fungi’s genes, so that it wouldn’t turn brown if left it in the refrigerator too long. The researchers hadn’t inserted any DNA from another species. They’d just altered a few sections of the mushroom’s DNA with a powerful new tool called CRISPR-Cas9. . .

. . . . [A] pretty small change, smaller than mutations that occur routinely in nature. On April 13, [USDA] decided that the mushroom wasn’t GMO enough to register on the regulatory radar. . . .  The definition of “GMO” really does matter.

. . . .

. . . . We might be poised for a flood of new crops built to resist disease, insects, drought, and — like this mushroom — spoilage. And because these “non GMOs” face no regulatory hurdles, small companies and big universities . . . will get involved, rather than leaving it to . . . big corporations that have enough cash to survive years of government review. . . .[W]e should also look at it from the other perspective, note that powerful technologies often end up having unexpected side effects, and rethink the lack of regulation.

. . . .

Ultimately, though, the vicious debates over what makes a crop “GMO” are beside the point. Instead of arguing about definitions, I’d suggest weighing the tradeoffs of any new crop, no matter how it was bred.

. . . [E]very new seed introduced contains risks. Beefing up regulations to catch CRISPR seeds . . . would mitigate those risks. Make regulatory review too thorough, however, and you’ll prevent all but the biggest corporations from designing seeds for the biggest farmers.

Read full, original post: What’s a GMO? Apparently not these magic mushrooms

French regulators split on whether to regulate CRISPR, new breeding techniques as GMOs

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

The French High Council for Biotechnology (HCB) is shedding members. Seven associations have left the organisation, claiming their opinions on new plant breeding techniques, or “new GMOs”, were ignored. EurActiv’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

Following the resignation of Yves Bertheau, of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, and Patrick de Kochko, the coordinator of the French Peasant Seed network (Réseau Semences Paysannes), from the HCB, seven associations announced on Wednesday (13 April) that they suspended their membership of the Council in February.

The cause of this exodus was a memo on new plant breeding techniques (NPBT), which first appeared as an ‘opinion’, and then as a ‘provisional report’.

This memo was published in early February and recommended that the products derived from most of these new plant breeding techniques be exempt from the European Directive on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

This would lead to significant changes in terms of authorisation and traceability, as well as labelling. And it would allow the biotechnology industry to bypass the obstacles it had to endure in the authorisation of GMOs.

. . . .

According to the HCB president, the regulatory status of NPBT products has not yet been finalised, in spite of what the provisional report, and then the ministerial letter, may suggest.

Read full, original post: Agricultural authorisation body in meltdown over ‘new GMOs’



GMOs, seed availability, national security concerns threaten Syngenta-ChemChina deal

Why is there so much concern about a potential takeover of Syngenta, one of the largest pesticide agri-business companies in the world, by a Chinese-state-owned chemical company? Although Europe, Brazil and the United States—the world’s leading agricultural regions—have all pledged tough scrutiny over national security concerns, future of the seed market, particularly in genetically modified seeds.

First, let’s review the merger details. In February, Syngenta agreed to be acquired by China National Chemical Corp., as ChemChina is formally known, for $43 billion cash. Syngenta had similar offers, including one from rival agrochemical and seed giant Monsanto but chose ChemChina’s offer because it was entirely in cash and because it anticipated an easier regulatory road. It is the most ambitious overseas acquisition by a Chinese company ever.

While the Chinese government appears to be in full favor of the deal, the reaction in the United States is more cautious. Numerous senators have expressed their concerns, most particularly Senator Marco Rubio (FL-R) in a letter to the president:

ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta has raised valid questions as to how Beijing, if approved, will then treat U.S. farm products. Our nation grows in population, and with it, an increased need for food security. The concerns raised by many, through the lens of trade, biosecurity, food safety and our farming sector, must be properly addressed prior to approving the proposed acquisition.

One thing these politicians are worried about is national security. Syngenta operates many of its global enterprises in the U.S., including a number of chemical and pesticide manufacturing plants. Many of these are close to U.S. military and covert American government facilities. These Syngenta plants would now be owned and operated by a Chinese government run company.

The other major concern is that Chinese ownership of genetically engineered seeds could cause problems for U.S. farmers. Currently, Syngenta provides 10 percent of U.S. soybean seeds and 6 percent of corn seeds, and its biotech division is located in the United States. But the Chinese have had a volatile relationship with GMO regulations, and have previously rejected U.S. exports during trade spats—a huge disruption to U.S. farmers that depend on a reliable export market. China is a large buyer of agricultural commodities and the country is the U.S.’s largest export market for many crops. To what degree would ChemChina operate independently of Chinese trade and foreign policy issues? In effect, China might both be selling and regulating the same crops, something U.S. leaders fear could be used to block sales of food by U.S. farmers to the massive Chinese market.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Senator Chuck Grassley are also worried the deal could mean less biotechnology research and fewer seed options for farmers going forward. According to Vilsack:

I have a watchful eye on all of this and continue to be extremely concerned about the way in which biotechnology and innovation is being treated and impeded by a system in China that often times is not based on science and appears to be based more on politics.

Grassley has arguably been the most outspoken in his disapproval of the deal. The U.S. needs to ensure, “we’re not permitting the sale of too much of our food industry, especially when government-controlled entities like ChemChina are the buyers,” he’s said. He believes this deal, and other similar mergers, may reduce farmer’s choices, “I remain troubled about the long-term effects of continued consolidation in the seed industry and what that will mean (to) the farmers who have fewer companies to buy seed from.”

But it’s not just politicians who are worried about affect the deal will have on U.S. farmers, Jana Linderman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, outlined these concerns in a recent interview with WNAX in South Dakota:

When you see mergers like this, you know inputs are not going to get cheaper, certainly, and your very likely to see decreases in really much needed research which we have already seen as a result of these mergers. Private sector research is way down. The number of new products being put onto the market in response to what farmers need has gone way down. We have already seen these effects because these mergers have already been happening.

Will the U.S. block deal?

Syngenta shareholders remain optimistic about a deal, approving on April 26 a special dividend to be paid after—and if—the deal closes. But the U.S. could be a spoiler. Because Syngenta has several U.S.-based assets, Syngenta and ChemChina must bring the merger before the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S (CFIUS), an interdepartmental committee chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury that includes representatives of 16 U.S. governmental agencies like State, Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security. The committee’s role is to review acquisitions of U.S. assets by foreign investors for potential national security risks. It can recommend the president block the deal on these grounds. Normally, the review board does not contain members from the FDA or the USDA, but Grassley, Rubio and others are lobbying to make sure these agencies have a say in the review.

CFIUS will review whether the deal threatens U.S. food security and will it put Chinese-owned property, like Syngenta’s U.S. chemical plants, too close to U.S. military bases. The board has a recent history of blocking deals on these grounds. In 2012, it stopped a Chinese company from buying a wind farm in Oregon on the grounds that the facility was too close to a training site for unmanned drones. It also blocked China’s Northwest Non Ferrous International Investment from acquiring Firstgold Corp., which had property near Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada in 2009.

The board did approve the purchase of U.S. assets of a Canadian company by China’s biggest offshore oil and natural gas producer, Cnooc Ltd. But the US barred the company from operating oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico because the fields were too close—50 miles—to a Naval base in Louisiana. This same base is 80 miles from a Syngenta pesticide manufacturing facility.  Another chemical facility is located some 10 miles outside of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. While food and farming are expected to play a major role in the review of this deal, CFIUS has reportedly never blocked a deal on the grounds of food security. In 2013, it approved the purchase of Smithfield Foods Inc. by a Chinese company despite some politicians raising food security issues.

View from China

The Chinese central government is said to be in full favor of the deal, and the company’s Chairman Ren Jianxin has been adamant that the move is purely profit based and not political. One of the most lucrative parts of this deal for ChemChina is said to be Syngenta’s intellectual property, which includes seeds for GMO corn and soy—neither of which are commercially grown in the country as yet. Many see this proposed acquisition as another step for China towards full acceptance of GMOs.

The country does permit the growth and commercialization of these crops, but acceptance and commercialization has slowed over political issues. In 1997, China approved the commercialization of GM cotton, which is still grown widely today and in 2014 was grown at a similar level as in the U.S. But the country has not approved a new GMO since it approved for import the Hawaiian virus-resistant papaya in 2006. One of the hold ups to further commercialization is public opinion against the crops, much of which is said to be based on anti-Western sentiment, as well as myth spread by activists like Greenpeace.

China’s current state of agriculture is in dire need of an upgrade. The country has 1/5th of the world’s population but its farming yields have been stagnant. This is why it is hard to see this move as merely driven by the profits for one company. This is particularly true in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan, which named biotech and agriculture as one of seven “Strategic Emerging Industries.” Another sign is that the country’s No. 1 Central Document, for the 13th year in a row, focused on Agriculture and farmer related issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken positively about the technology in the passed, but has noted he worries the country could be flooded by GMOs from other country’s, an opinion shared by many citizens of the country. Certainly buying Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, would be a way for the government to ensure the GMOs within its borders are homegrown.

Syngenta’s response to U.S. criticisms

In response to some of the criticisms, Syngenta Chief Operating Officer Davor Pisk, wrote a letter to the editor in The Washington Post in early April, maintaining that not much would change for the company as a result of the deal. He pointed out that Syngenta would maintain its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland and will still operate under foreign status in China. Syngenta’s Chairman Michel Demare echoed this when he told CNBC in February the deal was not “Chinese nationalization.” He also reassured investors at the company’s annual meeting on April 26 that CFIUS poses no threat to the deal.

Officials from both Syngenta and ChemChina expect the deal to be completed by the end of 2016 which is possible as CFIUS normally completes its review of deals in 75 days—although it has not yet begun. However, with the bi-partisan criticisms over the deal so vocal it is hard to share the companies’ optimism. A report from CLSA (Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia), a research-driven equity broker, estimated the deal has just a 35 percent chance of being approved by the U.S. CLSA analyst Mark Connelly said that the deal would be bad for the US and for its farm industry: “The U.S. has the most to lose strategically from the acquisition.”

Nicholas Staropoli is the associate director of GLP and director of the Epigenetics Literacy Project. He has an M.A. in biology from DePaul University and a B.S. in biomedical sciences from Marist College. Follow him on twitter @NickfrmBoston.

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Researchers ‘evolve’ new Bt toxin that could fight insect resistance to GMO crops

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops have been one of the most successful applications of genetic engineering in agriculture. The crops carry a gene that encodes a bacterial protein that kills insects that ingest it. While it’s possible to spray crops with the Bt toxin instead, farms that rely on Bt GMO crops are more profitable, have higher productivity, and use less pesticides.

Unfortunately, evolution isn’t sitting still, and Bt-resistant insects are beginning to become a problem. While scientists are developing new crops with other Bt genes and farmers can adopt agricultural practices that limit the risk of resistance, some researchers decided to short-circuit the whole process. In a new paper, they figured out how to evolve a completely new Bt toxin in a virus that infects bacteria and showed that it was effective in killing insects.

. . . .

All of this was a staggering amount of work. But the authors argue it was worth it because the basic approach . . .can be re-deployed for a variety of purposes. Want to target a completely different type of insect? It should work. . . .  With a large collection of new Bts, we should be able to handle the issue of existing Bt-resistant insects as well as engineer a new collection of crops that carry multiple Bts, making evolution of additional resistance unlikely.

And that’s just the benefits in pest control. The authors note that similar approaches are already being attempted with medically relevant targets. Sometimes, biotech makes other technology fields look positively conservative.

Read full, original post: Researchers evolve new toxin to target agricultural pests


CRISPR co-discoverer Emmanuelle Charpentier continuing advances in gene editing

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s office is bare, save for her computer. Her pictures, still encased in bubble wrap, are stacked in one corner, and unpacked cardboard boxes stuffed with books and papers are lined up in the adjacent room. But across the corridor, her laboratory is buzzing with activity. When Charpentier moved to Berlin six months ago, she had her science up and running within weeks, but decided that the rest could wait. “We were all determined to get the research going as fast as possible,” she says, leaning forward from her still-pristine office chair.

The itinerant lifestyle doesn’t seem to have hampered the microbiologist as she has carefully dissected the systems by which bacteria control their genomes. Charpentier is now acknowledged as one of the key inventors of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR–Cas9, which is revolutionizing biomedical researchers’ ability to manipulate and understand genes.

The academic limelight is not a comfortable place for Charpentier, which is why she remains the least well known member of the small international group tipped for the ‘CRISPR Nobel’, if it arrives. “Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, warned that winning prizes turned you into an institution — I am just trying to keep working and keep my feet on the ground,” she says. She seems to be succeeding, recently publishing a paper in Nature that reveals the mechanism of a CRISPR system that might prove even more efficient than CRISPR–Cas9.

Read full, original post: The quiet revolutionary: How the co-discovery of CRISPR explosively changed Emmanuelle Charpentier’s life

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Testing babies for genetic diseases: Are we ready for next generation screens?

When Gianni Andrada was born, a routine (and required) newborn blood test revealed that he had the genes for cystic fibrosis, a devastating disease. It took another four months for the final diagnosis to be made; it was negative.

As this story—told to the Today Show in 2011—demonstrates, genetic testing is not infallible. In fact, the number of false positive results from newborn testing is about 1/300 infants, which totals more than 13,000 such results per year in the United States alone. The story also highlights another concern: as genetic testing techniques become more sensitive and sophisticated, are public health agencies and the medical profession ready for them? This question becomes increasinly important now that more than 60 countries have adopted newborn screening programs and the technology behind screening is starting to shift toward more data-intense next-generation sequencing.

Most stories on the use of these faster, next-generation sequencing techniques focus on the success stories. We have all heard about newborns who spend months, maybe years, in and out of hospitals  in search of a diagnosis. It can take weeks (or months) to get clinical results back from our current “heel prick” blood tests of newborns. So, next-generation sequencing techniques have been hailed as a faster way to arrive at answers for a larger number of diseases among newborns.

  • One company offering this approach is Parabase Genomics, a Boston-based firm that is working to match genetic counselors with next-generation sequencing techniques on newborns. The company advertises tests that can deliver results on 14 disease categories within 10 days, with a rare disease follow-up test that delivers results within four weeks. The sample for these tests is the same heel prick performed for traditional newborn testing.
  • Another company, Counsyl, starts a little earlier. The company tests families for propensity toward a number of inherited diseases and will test infants as young as 10 weeks old for more than 100 disorders using whole-exome sequencing techniques. The company states it has performed more than half a million DNA screens so far.

But other practitioners have some concerns.

  • A group of researchers from McGill University raised concerns that whole-genome sequencing (in particular) could generate too much information. This information could include, for example, incidental findings about paternity as well as clinical information about the child. In addition, other information may show conditions that don’t arise until adulthood. Finally, the McGill group raised concerns that screening techniques would saddle public health agencies with much larger volumes of information.
  • Mark Korson, a physician who left private practice to direct the Genetic Metabolic Center for Education, warned that sequencing techniques for screening raises other questions, as the number of diseases tested for rises from 50, to 100, perhaps extending into the thousands. “For a disease like cystic fibrosis, there’s no cure, though some treatments exist. In situations where older siblings had CF, new siblings were tested early and started treatments, and had longer lives and better quality of life” he said in an interview. But for other disorders that such techniques could pick up, “what about a situation where there’s no definitive treatment? Society can save by identifying patients with rare disease which might otherwise take years and dozens of consultations before a patient is identified”. But next-generation sequencing yields genetic variants that may not be validated, or connected to a specific disease.

Another problem is coverage. In countries in and around the Arabian Peninsula, many governments have imposed premarital and newborn genetic screening. Part of the impetus for this is the high number of genetic disorders there, largely due to common practices of cousins marrying cousins. But not all countries in the region have the funds to devote to these technologies, creating gaps in coverage of inherited diseases, warned Lihadh Al-Gazali, professor in clinical genetics and pediatrics at United Arab Emirates University and Hanan Hamamy, genetic counseling specialist with Geneva University in Switzerland.

Yet another problem in the Arab world, as well as anywhere else, is education. Al-Gazali, Hamamy, and Korson warn that there aren’t enough trained experts in genetics, metabolic disorders, and screening techniques to take care of the existing screening facilities, let alone the additional burden of processing data from these new technologies (notably Korson’s Genetic Metabolic Center for Education does have programs to train and counsel practitioners and parents worldwide). “We’re not increasing the number of doctors available to treat these patients. There are maybe 100 biochemical geneticists in this country. Clinics are run by doctors with no expertise in the area. It’s compromising success.” Even in Arab countries with sophisticated equipment, Korson said he has seen the equipment but laments that there is nobody around to run it.

Golden principles of screening

Much of the discussion about newborn screens and selection of diseases goes back to a document written for the World Health Organization in 1968. Written by James Wilson, of the UK Ministry of Health, and Gunner Jungner, of Sahlgren’s Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, “Principles and practice of screening for disease” has been the “gold standard” for deciding which diseases to screen. As revised by WHO a few years ago, the principles read:

• The condition sought should be an important health problem
• There should be accepted treatment for patients with recognized disease
• Facilities for diagnosis and treatment should be available
• There should be a recognizable latent or early symptomatic stage
• There should be a suitable test or examination
• The test should be acceptable to the population
• The natural history of the condition…should be understood
• There should be an agreed-on policy on whom to treat
• Cost of case-finding should be economically balanced
• Case finding should be a continuous process

These steps—or their earlier incarnations, which are quite similar—may not quell every debate over screening. But they do help provide directions and a foundation for what’s apparently much needed education among practitioners as well as patients and politicians.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

Consumer attitudes towards GMOs: Concerns about who benefits, why GMOs are used

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Professor Rachel Ankeny is an associate dean of research and deputy dean in the faculty of arts at the University of Adelaide, Australia, where she leads the Food Values Research Group.

. . . .We talked to Rachel about her interdisciplinary research, GMOs, and the nature of good food.

You’ve done research on consumer attitudes toward genetically modified organisms. . .  could you talk about how ethical and moral concerns are factored into consumer decision making regarding GM foods? . . .

Our research has been based in Australia which allows GM crops and foods under certain conditions, but which to date has not had a huge number of GM food products on the shelves. This makes for an excellent site for explorations of consumer attitudes toward GM . . . We find that many consumers are most concerned about why GM is being used and who will benefit—to make profit for big corporations or retailers, versus improving nutrition or lessening environmental impacts. They are less concerned about the technical and scientific details of how GM works, and in fact often collapse concerns about additives or pesticides/herbicides [when] discussing the need for better and more transparent labeling. Of course, some consumers simply reject all uses of GM,. . .because of fears about the unknown risks, or because it is what they consider to be unnatural. But people have very different understandings of what counts as a risk, and what is natural, which makes this domain ripe for exploration, with all of its complexities and even contradictions.

Read full, original post: Rachel Ankeny on GMOs, Food Ethics & Consumer Attitudes

Varroa mite parasite, viruses linked more closely to honey bee health, multi-year survey finds

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

Honey bee colonies in the United States are in decline, due in part to the ill effects of voracious mites, fungal gut parasites and a wide variety of debilitating viruses. Researchers from the University of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently completed the first comprehensive, multi-year study of honey bee parasites and disease. . . .

The results, published online in the journal Apidologie on April 20, 2016, provide an important five-year baseline against which to track future trends. Key findings show that the varroa mite, a major honey bee pest, is far more abundant than previous estimates indicated and is closely linked to several damaging viruses. Also, the results show that the previously rare Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus has skyrocketed in prevalence since it was first detected by the survey in 2010.

. . . .

“. . . .[O]ur study is the first systematic survey to establish disease baselines, so that we can track changes in disease prevalence over time,” said Kirsten Traynor, a postdoctoral researcher in entomology at UMD and lead author on the study. . . .

. . . .

While parasites and disease are huge factors in declining honey bee health, there are other contributors as well. Pesticides, for example, have been implicated in the decline of bee colonies across the country.

“Our next step is to provide a similar baseline assessment for the effects of pesticides,” vanEngelsdorp said. “We have multiple years of data and as soon as we’ve finished the analyses, we’ll be ready to tell that part of the story as well.”

Read full, original post: First multi-year study of honey bee parasites and disease reveals troubling trends

For first time, researchers find genes that explain differences in how we each experience happiness

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis.

For the first time in history, researchers have isolated the parts of the human genome that could explain the differences in how humans experience happiness. These are the findings of a large-scale international study in over 298,000 people, conducted by VU Amsterdam professors Meike Bartels (Genetics and Wellbeing) and Philipp Koellinger (Genoeconomics). The researchers found three genetic variants for happiness, two variants that can account for differences in symptoms of depression, and eleven locations on the human genome that could account for varying degrees of neuroticism. The genetic variants for happiness are mainly expressed in the central nervous system and the adrenal glands and pancreatic system. The results were published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Genetic influences on happiness

Prior twin and family research using information from the Netherlands Twin Register and other sources has shown that individual differences in happiness and well-being can be partially ascribed to genetic differences between people. Happiness and wellbeing are the topics of an increasing number of scientific studies in a variety of academic disciplines. Policy makers are increasingly focusing on wellbeing, drawing primarily on the growing body of evidence suggesting that wellbeing is a factor in mental and physical health.

VU Amsterdam professor Meike Bartels explains: “This study is both a milestone and a new beginning: A milestone because we are now certain that there is a genetic aspect to happiness and a new beginning because the three variants that we know are involved account for only a small fraction of the differences between human beings. We expect that many variants will play a part.” Locating these variants will also allow us to better study the interplay between nature and nurture, as the environment is certainly responsible — to some extent — for differences in the way people experience happiness.”

Read full, original post: First happiness genes have been located