VATIS Update Biotechnology . Jul-Sep 2012

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Biotechnology Jul-Sep 2012

ISSN: 0971-5622

VATIS Update Biotechnology is published 4 times a year to keep the readers up to date of most of the relevant and latest technological developments and events in the field of Biotechnology. The Update is tailored to policy-makers, industries and technology transfer intermediaries.

Co-publisher: Biotech Consortium India Ltd
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A new window of opportunity

The mandate for healthcare, a key collaborative area among BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), stands at a crossroads. There is a greater emphasis on funnelling new investments into efforts to improve health in the poorest countries, thanks to the rise of domestic biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. The health biotech sector in India, particularly vaccines, is a case in point. While figures point to an innovation-fuelled boom (India produces about 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines and accounts for 60-80 per cent of annual United Nations vaccine purchases), the emphasis on the South-South collaboration appears to be in the non-innovative sector, according to “South-South Entrepreneurial Collaboration in Health Biotech,” a study carried out a couple of years ago. Of the firms surveyed in the study, 13 per cent cited R&D as one of the collaboration sectors – contrasting with 72 per cent citing distribution and 34 per cent citing marketing. Compared with the extent of R&D collaboration in the North-North space in a similar study (20 per cent in the mid-to-late 1990s, up from 6 per cent in the 1970s), this is not an encouraging figure.

A positive note, however, is that Southern firms are becoming epicentres of new knowledge products, particularly with the emergence of institutes like the Beijing Genomic Institute. Global collaboration in the Indian health biotech sector has seen a noticeable shift towards the South in the past decade, with the graduation of start-up firms from concept development to drug development. Many clinical research organizations (CROs) now develop their own drugs. While India is well ahead in the volume game (the past decade saw about 240 new CROs in India), there are gaps in knowledge sharing. South-South collaboration is underpinned by parity in socio-economic development and, in some instances, culture. The ‘Big 3’ killer diseases – malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS – currently lack vaccines and require a strong focus on collaborative research. Efforts such as the ongoing South Africa-India Bilateral Collaboration for HIV antigens, in particular, have tremendous benefit for both countries as well as for research in HIV.

India’s biotech industry touches new heights

Amid uncertain economic conditions, the biotech industry of India has performed creditably to cross the Rs 200 billion (US$3.7 billion) revenue mark for the first time, the 10th annual BioSpectrum-ABLE Biotech Industry Survey has revealed. Buoyed by healthy vaccine exports and Bt cotton sales, the industry has grown by 18.5 per cent in the financial year 2011-2012 over the previous year to record revenue of Rs 204.4 billion (US$3.79 billion). Some notable changes are taking place, influencing the direction in which the Indian biotech industry is growing. The most important one is that some inherent strengths are driving overall growth despite adverse economic conditions. This means that finally, the products and services offered by the industry have significant takers within and outside the country.

Another key development is that domestic revenue of the industry has overtaken export revenue for the first time. Domestic sales accounted for 52 per cent share of the industry revenue in 2011-2012; the share of exports slipped to 48 per cent. Exports used to account for nearly two-thirds of the industry revenue till a few years ago. Last year’s 18.5 per cent growth has been built on the back of similar growth rates in the previous five years. It is clear that the industry growth rate will hover around the 20 per cent in the near future. The question is whether this will be the new normal for the Indian biotech industry. The bioagriculture sector has certainly had a major role in the growth story, with 23 per cent increase in revenue. The biopharma sector continues notching up 19 per cent increase in revenue. The bioservices sector is contributing with 15.5 per cent growth rate. The Indian biotech industry registered a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.75 per cent in the last four years and a CAGR of 24.18 per cent between 2002 and 2012, the Survey points out.

DNA fingerprinting helps rice farmers

The Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) has released a manual to assist researchers navigate the intricate science of molecular DNA fingerprinting, a vital tool in ensuring the genetic identity and purity of a hybrid rice variety that has a higher yield potential than the best inbred variety. The manual ‘DNA Fingerprinting in Hybrid Rice’ provides an intro into the basics of rice DNA fingerprinting and guides practitioners of molecular biology in understanding basic procedures and techniques involved in using molecular markers in DNA fingerprinting. It familiarizes practitioners with the basic equipment and instruments used in a molecular biology laboratory, consolidating the most basic procedures, including “practical notes”, not found in books. With the same inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, hybrid varieties yield at least 15 per cent higher produce than inbred varieties. To realize maximum yield potential, 98 per cent genetic purity must be observed with hybrids.

Cultivated rice varieties or cultivars have almost identical features, making differentiation difficult. Physical characteristics alone may not be sufficient in identifying a pure or true-to-type variety. Molecular diagnosis can help identify varietal distinctiveness and measure the purity of rice seeds. Sophisticated and modern biotechnology tools, particularly molecular marker technologies, have opened possibilities for deciphering the “pauper” rice or admixture from that of the original cultivars. “The work solves current and future concerns on hybrid rice seed purity,” stated Dr. Eufemio T. Rasco, PhilRice Executive Director. DNA fingerprinting of hybrids involves the use of specific genetic markers from the rice genome. These genetic markers are carefully selected and validated to produce distinct DNA fingerprints that can serve as molecular fingerprints of a cultivar or cultivated variety.

Malaysia to push for local feed products

The Malaysian Agriculture Research & Development Institute (MARDI) will continuously strive to meet the increasing demand for local feed through projects that include its advanced reproductive biotechnology (ARB) project. According to MARDI Director-General Dr. Abdul Shukor Abdul Rahman, ruminant feed production has contributed immensely to agriculture development, leading to Malaysia’s overall economic strength. Through its Livestock Research Centre, MARDI has been playing a major role in the R&D for products and technologies for the livestock industries, including animal feed processing.

Under ARB project – currently being managed and commercialized by the MARDI unit Marditech Corporation, locally developed breeds such as the Brakmas cattle will be reproduced in mass, targeting multiplier and commercial farms. Another project that Marditech will undertake is the Keningau Integrated Livestock Centre, located in the Sabah Development Corridor. The 1,170 acres project will include a pasture and fodder area, milking parlour and feedmill, as well as breeding and semen production areas. Through the ARB project, a structured breeding system has been introduced to encourage the speedy evolution of local livestock farming based on indigenous breeding of cattle and goats. The project also covers feed production/milling operation and activities such as strategic sourcing of suitable breeds to create the initial critical mass.

Centre for HIV vaccine research

In India, parliamentarians and political leaders have promised to provide scientists with “adequate resources” on par with international standards in the fight against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Recently, former President Mr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam launched the Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute (THSTI) in New Delhi, accelerating India’s search for a vaccine against HIV acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The institute is a joint venture between the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) to establish, operate and fund an HIV vaccine design programme in India. Health Minister Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad promised “strong political will” at the highest level and stated that “a preventive vaccine for HIV/AIDS is the best hope to end this epidemic”. The step was an initiative to reinforce a national response in the global fight against disease, he added.

THSTI, which has been set up with a seed money of Rs 700 million (US$13 million), will be devoted exclusively to HIV vaccine R&D. The laboratory will focus on keeping Indian scientists abreast of global developments. “This institute is a link between scientists in India and abroad who will be working collaboratively towards achieving a common goal. The idea is to connect the efforts of various agencies, industry and consortium instead of fragmenting the work. Forging international collaborations and openly sharing scientific knowledge is key to achieving solutions for global health problems,” stated Mr. M.K. Bhan, Secretary, DBT. India has close to 2.7 million HIV-positive people.


Abbott to open first nutrition R&D centre in India

Abbott, one of the top healthcare companies in India, has announced plans to establish its first nutrition R&D centre in India in collaboration with Syngene, India’s leading contract research organization. The Abbott Nutrition R&D Centre will focus on developing science-based, affordable nutrition products for the country and enable the expansion of Abbott’s nutrition product portfolio. Abbott selected Syngene – a subsidiary of Biocon, the largest biotech company in India – to provide a science-based research and innovation team to work closely with Abbott researchers. More than 50 researchers and scientists will be based at the Abbott Nutrition R&D Centre at Biocon Park, Bangalore.

The new R&D centre will focus on the development of nutrition products for maternal and child nutrition and diabetes care. Preventing under-nutrition has emerged as a critical health challenges in India, with about half the population not getting adequate essential nutrients. India also has the world’s largest diabetes population estimated at 51 million people. The nutrition market in India is relatively new and growing steadily. In addition to the under-nutrition and diabetes issues facing India, a fast expanding middle class and aging population are driving increased demand in the country for high-quality, affordable nutrition products.

Agilent secures patent for genomic hybridization method

Agilent Technologies, the United States, has been awarded a major patent for comparative genomic hybridization (CGH) methods that help researchers study genetics and cancer in both basic and clinical research. The United States’ patent has claims for measuring copy number changes in genomic DNA, covering both one-colour and two-colour assays using oligonucleotide probes and samples with high-sequence complexity, such as human genomic DNA samples.

Agilent’s copy number method uses long oligonucleotide probes, enabling high specificity and sensitivity. For example, samples containing as low as 8 per cent abnormal cells may be confidently analysed with Agilent’s copy number method. The method also improves upon other oligonucleotide array assays that depend on sample preparation methods that remove significant portions of the genomic DNA content. Agilent’s higher-resolution platform allows for the detection of much smaller genomic aberrations throughout complex genomes.

New joint venture for DNA diagnostics

In the United States, the University of Michigan (UM) and the International Genomics Consortium (IGC) have launched a new joint venture as a key step towards providing patients with treatments based on their own DNA profiles. The new non-profit company called Paradigm brings together the expertise of the UM Health System (UMHS) and IGC, two leaders in using genetic information, to understand and treat diseases. Beginning with cancer and later extending into other disease groups, the new company will offer doctors and healthcare organizations anywhere access to whole gene and multigene sequencing and molecular diagnostics. The company will also help support clinical trials at UMHS and other health systems.

Paradigm complements other DNA services offered by UMHS, including the MLabs reference laboratory and the research-oriented DNA Sequencing Core. Paradigm will focus first on offering services to oncologists and oncology groups, pathologists, academic medical centres and clinical trial groups studying personalized medicine regimens. Its first products will be especially of use in better tailoring treatments for cancer patients.

NCBS, Institut Curie and CNRS go for joint research

The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), India, Institut Curie, France, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France, have signed a joint agreement on collaborative research. The agreement will facilitate development of cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships among the three organizations via enhanced mobility for researchers and programmes in multi-institutional research. It is anticipated that these collaborative efforts will be in most areas of cutting-edge biological research currently under way at these locations and also in the field of the history of science. It also offers an opportunity since CNRS is committed to supporting its researchers in setting up research laboratories in collaborating institutes the world over. As part of the scientific meetings between NCBS and Institut Curie, NCBS is hosting a series of events to celebrate Marie Curie’s life and ongoing legacy.

AstraZeneca sets up joint venture in China for mAb

MedImmune LLC, AstraZeneca’s biologics unit based in the United States, and WuXi AppTec, China, have established a joint venture in China to develop and commercialize MedImmune’s MEDI5117 antibody therapeutic for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases for the Chinese market. The fully human interleukin 6-targeting monoclonal antibody has been developed using MedImmune’s YTE half-life extending technology, and is currently in Phase I studies in Europe and the United States.

Through the equally owned joint venture, MedImmune will provide technical and development expertise relating to MEDI5117 development, with WuXi AppTec providing local regulatory, manufacturing, preclinical and clinical trials support. Under terms of the development agreement, AstraZeneca/MedImmune will have the option to acquire full rights to MEDI5117, but if this option is not exercised the joint venture will retain rights to commercialize the product. WuXi will receive fees based on services provided and MedImmune will receive development-based milestones.

Dr Reddy’s, Merck to jointly develop biosimilars

Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, India’s second largest drug maker, has teamed up with the German pharma giant Merck KGaA’s arm Merck Serono to jointly develop and commercialize biosimilars in oncology. Biosimilars are generic and low-cost equivalents of proprietary biopharmaceutical products. The pact enables Dr Reddy’s to capitalize on its biosimilars pipeline and introduce them in various emerging markets and developed markets, by sharing R&D costs and participating in the upsides upon commercialization. While Dr Reddy’s will lead early product development and complete Phase I development, Merck Serono will take over manufacturing of the compounds and will lead Phase III development.

In an arrangement based on full R&D cost sharing, the German firm will undertake global commercialization outside the United States and with the exception of select emerging markets that will be co-exclusive or where Dr Reddy’s has exclusive rights. The two firms said that the partnership covers co-development, manufacturing and commercialization of the compounds. Upon commercialization, Dr Reddy’s will receive royalty payments from Merck Serono. In the case of the United States market, both partners will jointly commercialize the products on a profit-sharing basis.

Covidien opens R&D facility in China

Covidien, based in Ireland, has opened its China Technology Centre (CTC) R&D facility in Shanghai, with a total investment of US$45 million over a three-year period. The facility spans more than 9,290 square metres, houses 17 laboratories, and has state-of-the-art surgical and simulation suites that enable healthcare professionals to be actively involved in the medical device design and development process. CTC has two core focus areas: design of tailored products, to identify and develop products that are customized to meet the needs of China and other emerging markets; and discovery of breakthrough platforms in medical technology, to utilize the skill sets and expertise of employees in Asia. Covidien already has 10 commercial offices, a manufacturing centre and training facilities for healthcare professionals in China.

Consortium to tackle inherited eye diseases

The Dutch brain drug delivery firm to-BBB won 1.25 million euros (approximately US$1.57 million) under the European Community’s 7th Framework Programme to fund its role in a collaborative 5 million euros (about US$6.3 million) project that aims to develop pre-clinical-stage drugs and drug delivery systems for inherited retinal degenerative disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa, Leber’s congenital amaurosis and achromatopsia. to-BBB will be working with collaborators at the University of Tübingen and the firm Biolog in Germany, Italy’s University of Modena and Reggio, and Lund University in Sweden.

The consortium will leverage the expertise of Biolog in cyclic nucleotide-based drug development, and to-BBB’s G-Technology® platform for delivering the drug across the blood-retinal barrier, which the firm says has similar characteristics to the blood-brain barrier for which the platform was originally developed. Academic collaborators at the German, Italian and Swedish research institutes will contribute their expertise in the in-depth study of all photoreceptor degenerative mechanisms, as well as the testing and evaluation of drug treatment effects.


Genes that raise osteoarthritis susceptibility

The largest genome-wide association study of osteoarthritis to date has uncovered eight new genetic variants or loci that appear to increase susceptibility to the most common form of arthritis, which affects about 40 per cent of the people older than 70 years. This finding brings the total number of osteoarthritis susceptibility genes isolated in European populations to 11. “Our findings provide some insight into the genetics of arthritis and identify new pathways that might be amenable to future therapeutic intervention,” explained Mr. John Loughlin from Newcastle University, the United Kingdom, who led the research.

Inherited factors could account for as much as 60 per cent of the variation in risk for osteoarthritis. But despite extensive efforts, it has proved difficult to identify the genes involved. The three variants discovered in GWAS to date (GDF5, chromosome 7q22 and MCF2L) account for only a small fraction of that risk. Mr. Loughlin and colleagues compared the genomes of more than 7,400 people with severe hip and knee osteoarthritis (80 per cent of whom had undergone total joint replacement) with over 11,000 unrelated controls from the United Kingdom. The most promising sites identified were then replicated in an independent group of almost 7,500 people with osteoarthritis and around 43,000 people without the condition from Iceland, Estonia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Results confirmed the three previously reported gene variants and found another eight sites associated with osteoarthritis. Five of the new loci were significantly associated with the disease while three loci were approaching the threshold for genome-wide significance. The strongest association was variant rs6976 on chromosome 3p21.1 in the region of the GNL3 gene whose encoded protein (nucleostemin) plays an important role in cell maintenance. Three new loci (CHST11, PTHLH and FTO) are located in regions of considerable biological interest that encode proteins involved in the modulation of cartilage proteoglycan (targeted by anti-osteoarthritis drugs such as chondroitin sulphate), the regulation of bone development within cartilage, and body weight – a strong risk factor for osteoarthritis.

Shape-shifting shell of retroviruses detailed

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Germany have for the first time uncovered the detailed structure of the shell that surrounds the genetic material of retroviruses, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), at a crucial and potentially vulnerable stage in their life cycle: when they are still being formed. Retroviruses essentially consist of genetic material encased in a protein shell, which is in turn surrounded by a membrane. After entering a target cell, the virus replicates, each copy of which has to get assembled from a medley of viral and cellular components into an immature virus. “All the necessary components are brought together within the host cell to form the immature virus, which then has to mature into a particle that is able to infect other cells,” explained Mr. John Briggs, who led the research at EMBL.

Both the mature and the immature virus shells are honeycomb-like lattices of hexagon-shaped units. Using a combination of electron microscopy and computer-based methods, Mr. Briggs and colleagues investigated which parts of the key proteins stick together to build the honeycomb of the immature shell. These turned out to be very different from the parts that build the mature shell. This knowledge will help scientists to unravel how the immature virus is assembled in the cell and how the shell proteins rearrange themselves to go from one form to the other. Many anti-retroviral drugs already block the enzyme that would normally separate components of the immature shell to allow it to mature. However, there is no approved drug available at present that acts on the shell itself and prevent the enzyme from locking on.

Five malaria genomes sequenced

Scientists have sequenced the entire genomes of five Plasmodium vivax strains taken from the blood of patients on different continents, providing a wealth of new data to help in the future mapping of malarial parasite traits such as drug resistance, and determine how different strains are geographically distributed. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute in the United States have identified more than 80,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that can form the basis of association studies and population surveys to study the diversity of P. vivax in a single region.

Critically, the results also demonstrate that P. vivax isolates from patients in Madagascar, Cambodia, and South America are genetically surprisingly similar, and exhibit little evidence of local adaptation. One possibility for the relative lack of genetic diversity is that the P. vivax population has only recent origins, and has just dispersed fast across the world without major loss of diversity or influence from natural selection. Another possibility for the observed allele sharing is that there has been a continuous gene flow in the P. vivax population. If the latter hypothesis is true, prospects for P. vivax malaria elimination are bleak, the researchers say. “With high level of gene flow, genetic polymorphisms conferring drug resistance or novel invasion mechanisms could spread across the world and further complicate control strategies.”

Cheaper diagnosis in heterogeneous diseases

The first report on the diagnostic use of exome sequencing, where short sequences of DNA are analysed, shows that the technique can give good results at low cost. Scientists were able to perform a genetic diagnosis in around 20 per cent of 100 cases of patients with intellectual disability (ID) and 50 per cent of the 25 cases of blindness studied. The exome test is not only cheaper but results are available more quickly than with Sanger sequencing. A team led by Dr. Marcel Nelen, who heads the Core Genome Analysis Laboratory at the Radboud University Medical Centre, the Netherlands, examined exome sequences from 262 patients with six heterogeneous diseases: ID, blindness, deafness, cancer, oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) diseases and movement disorders. In all, the researchers analysed about 500 exome sequences. In the ID cases, exomes from the father, mother and the child were analysed; in all the other diseases, the exome data from the patient alone was filtered for known causative disease genes.

“The chances of finding a causal mutation in a single gene are small, but in a package containing more than 100 genes it is high, as our results from the blindness patients show. This new strategy means that we can analyse up to 20,000 genes with a single generic test, and the high throughput and lower cost means that we can test more for less money,” said Dr. Nelen. While exome sequencing is only able to identify those conditions where protein function is affected, scientists believe that exon (short DNA sequences representing the regions in genes that are translated into protein) regions contain about 85 per cent of all disease-causing mutations. While Sanger sequencing looks at around 500 base pairs per analysis, new exome sequencing looks at millions of sequencing reactions per analysis.

Genetic sequencing of human sperm

At Stanford University, the United States, researchers have sequenced the entire genome of 91 human sperms from one man. The results provide an insight into natural genetic variation in one individual and are the first to report the whole-genome sequence of a human gamete – the only cells that become a child and through which parents pass on physical traits. Sequencing of sperm cells is interesting because of a natural process called recombination that ensures that a baby is a blend of DNA from all four of his/her grandparents.

Until now, scientists had to rely on genetic studies of populations to estimate how frequently recombination had occurred in individual sperm and egg cells, and how much genetic mixing that entailed. The Stanford study showed that the previous, population-based estimates were, for the most part, accurate: on average, the sperm in the sample had each undergone about 23 recombinations, or mixing events. However, individual sperm varied greatly in the degree of genetic mixing and in the number and severity of spontaneously arising genetic mutations. Two sperms were missing entire chromosomes. The study has long-ranging implication for infertility doctors as well as researchers.

Most cells in the human body have two copies of each of 23 chromosomes, and are known as “diploid” cells. Recombination occurs during a process called meiosis, which partitions a single copy of each chromosome into a sperm or egg cell. When a sperm and an egg mate, the resulting fertilized egg too has a full complement of DNA. The researchers identified 25-36 new single nucleotide mutations in each sperm cell that were not present in the diploid genome of the subject. Such random mutations are another way to generate genetic variation, but if they occur at particular points in the genome they can have deleterious effects.

Novel double-stranded DNA structure identified

Double-stranded DNA has often been described as a right-handed helical structure, called B-DNA. To perform its multiple functions, double-stranded DNA has multiple structures depending on conditions. For example, the melted DNA bubble is formed during transcription elongation and the left-handed helical Z-DNA is formed hypothetically during transcriptional regulations.

Since 1996, scientists have been proposing a novel form of double-stranded DNA structure referred to as S-DNA, produced during DNA overstretching transition – stretching the B-form DNA beyond a ‘transition force’ of around 65 pN to approximately 1.7 fold in length. The proposal sparked off a scientific debate, as many other evidences suggested DNA overstretching transition to be just force-induced DNA melting transition, leading to peeled-apart single-stranded DNA. At National University of Singapore (NUS), research led by Mr. Jie Yan, an Associate Professor from the Faculty of Science and Mechanobiology Institute, has succeeded in demonstrating the intricacies of the DNA mechanics in highly sensitive single-DNA stretching experiments. Mr. Yan and his team found that DNA overstretching may involve two transitions that are very distinct in their transition kinetics: a slower hysteretic peeling transition to peeled-apart single-stranded DNA; and a faster non-hysteretic transition to an unknown DNA structure. Whether the unknown DNA structure produced from the non-hysteretic transition is the S-DNA or two single-stranded DNA strands through inside-DNA-melting, however, remains a question.

The researchers studied the thermodynamics associated with the two transitions. They found that the non-hysteretic transition was associated with a small negative entropy change, in contrast to the large positive entropy change seen during the hysteretic peeling transition. This result strongly favours DNA re-arrangement into a highly ordered, non-melted state during the non-hyteretic transition. Given its elongated structure, the S-DNA may be a potential binding substrate for DNA intercalators, including those used in chemotherapeutic treatment to inhibit DNA replication in rapidly growing cancer cells. In cells, many DNA-binding proteins utilize side chain intercalation to distort the DNA backbone. Hence, the S-DNA may be also a potential binding substrate for these proteins that occur in living organisms.

DNA of ancient human decoded

The genome of a cave-dwelling girl from 80,000 years ago has been analysed in such detail it is known she had brown hair, eyes and skin, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, say. The researchers analysed a small finger bone to extract DNA information about the previously unknown group of ancient humans. The cave dweller was called a Denisovan, because her bone fragments were found in Siberia’s Denisova cave in 2010. Denisovans were evolutionary cousins of the Neanderthals before both died out about 30,000 years ago.

Comparison of the girl’s genome with that of Neanderthals and 11 modern humans from around the world allowed researchers to identify the gene changes that make modern humans different from the two groups of extinct humans, he said. “This is an extinct genome sequence of unprecedented accuracy,” said Mr. Matthias Meyer, chief researcher on the study. “To me the most exciting thing is having a good genome from our very closest extinct relatives which we can now compare ourselves to.”

Genetic optimization for allergen-free house plants

New research shows how targeting two bacterial genes into Pelargonium, an ornamental plant, can produce long-lived and pollen-free plants. In a collaborative project, researchers from Spain’s Instituto de Biología Molecular y Celular de Plantas (IBMCP) and BIOMIVA S.L. modified Agrobacterium tumefaciens bacteria to carry altered genes. One gene, encoding enzyme isopentenyl phosphotransferase (ipt) was designed to increase the amount of cytokinin (a plant hormone) and thereby prevent aging (senescence), and the second was engineered to selectively destroy pollen-producing anthers.

The modified DNA was injected into Pelargonium zonale cells by the bacteria, where it was later integrated into the plant’s genome. Individual plants were then grown from these transgenic cells. The plants carrying the modified genes were more compact with increased number of branches and leaves than is normal. These plants also had small leaves and flowers, with more vibrant colours, and the extra cytokinin in the leaves meant that these plants had longer life than usual. Dr. Luis Cañas from IBMCP explained, “The ipt enzyme catalyses the rate-limiting step for cytokinin biosynthesis in plants and consequently extra ipt, provided transgenically, produces more cytokinin and prevents the plant cells from aging. In addition, the use of an anther-specific promoter from pea driving the expression of bacterial gene (ribonuclease), prevents the development of male progenitor cells into anthers and pollen, resulting in pollen-free flowers.”


Proteins get programmed to disarm flu viruses

At the University of Washington in the United States, researchers are constructing computer-designed proteins to fight the flu. Researchers are demonstrating that proteins found in nature, but that do not normally bind the flu, can be engineered to act as broad-spectrum antiviral agents against a variety of flu virus strains, including H1N1 pandemic influenza. One of the engineered proteins has a flu-fighting potency that rivals that of several human monoclonal antibodies, says Dr. David Baker, Professor of biochemistry. Dr. Baker’s research team is constructing these proteins via computer modelling to fit exquisitely into a specific nanosized target on flu viruses. By binding the target region like a key fitting into a lock, they block the virus from changing shape – a tactic that the virus uses to infect living cells.

Dr. Baker heads the Institute for Protein Design Centre at the University of Washington. Biochemists, computer scientists, engineers and medical specialists at the Institute are engineering novel proteins with new functions for specific purposes in medicine, environmental protection and other fields. As influenza is a very serious worldwide public health concern due to its genetic shifts and drifts that periodically become more virulent, flu is one of the key interests of the Institute and its collaborators in the United States and abroad. Vaccines for new influenza strains take months to develop, test and manufacture. The long response time for vaccine creation and distribution is a key issue when a more deadly strain suddenly emerges and spreads rapidly. The speed of transmission is accelerated by the lack of widespread immunity in the general population to the latest form of the virus.

The methods developed for designing influenza inhibitor proteins can help provide inhibitors or binders for any surface patch on any desired target of interest, Dr. Baker says. For example, if a new disease pathogen arises, scientists could figure out how it interacts with human cells or other hosts on a molecular level. Scientists could then use protein interface design to generate a diversity of small proteins that they predict would block the pathogen’s interaction surface. Genes for large numbers of the most promising, computer-designed proteins could be tested using yeast cells. After more molecular chemistry studies to find the best binding among those proteins, those could be re-programmed in the lab to undergo mutations, and the mutated forms could be stored in a “library” for an in-depth analysis of their amino acids, molecular architecture and energy bonds. Using advanced technologies, scientists could pick out quickly and with pinpoint accuracy those tiny proteins that clung to the pathogen surface target. The finalists would be selected from this pool for excelling at stopping the pathogen from attaching to, entering and infecting human or animal cells.

Enabling mechanism of cell replication discovered

Stem cells bide their time over long periods until they are required to replace damaged or lost tissue. One secret to their longevity is an enzyme called telomerase, which stops the molecular clock that limits the life span of the cells. Telomerase prevents the progressive shortening of the tips of chromosomes that occurs with each cell division. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, the United States, recently identified how telomerase is recruited to chromosome ends – and figured out a way to block it. “If telomerase is unable to maintain the ends of the chromosomes, cells will stop multiplying,” stated Prof. Steven Artandi. This would help contain cancer cells, but cause severe dysfunction in normal stem cells. The researchers therefore want to understand how telomerase works, to develop therapies for cancer and other diseases.

Telomerase is normally expressed in adult stem cells and immune cells, as well as in cells of the developing embryo. In these cells, the enzyme caps off the ends – called telomeres – of newly replicated chromosomes to allow unlimited cell division. Without telomerase, cells stop dividing or die when the telomeres fall below a minimum length. Unfortunately, the enzyme is also active in nearly all cancer cells. Prof. Artandi’s lab had earlier identified a protein (TCAB1) that brings the telomerase complex (a large clump of many proteins) to ‘Cajal body’, a processing area in the cell’s nucleus. However, none knew how the complex was then ferried to the ends of telomeres. “The enzyme is extremely hard to study. But we have now found that telomerase is recruited to the telomeres through an interaction with a protein called TPP1 that coats the ends of chromosomes,” stated Prof. Artandi. The researchers have also identified OB-fold, the exact region of TPP1 to which telomerase binds. “When we mutated this site in TPP1,” said Prof. Artandi, “we blocked the interaction between the two proteins and prevented telomerase from going to the telomeres. And when we interfered with this interaction in human cancer cells, the telomeres began to shorten.” The researchers are now assessing whether the life span of the cancer cells, and their ability to divide unchecked, will also be affected by the treatment.

A shared mechanism for organ placement

As organisms develop, their internal organs arrange in a consistent asymmetrical pattern – heart and stomach to the left, liver and appendix to the right. But how does this happen? Biologists led by Mr. Michael Levin at Tufts University, the United States, have produced the evidence that tubulin proteins – a class of proteins that make up a cell’s skeleton (cytoskeleton) – drive asymmetrical patterning in a broad spectrum of species, including plants, nematode worms, frogs and human cells. “The research also suggests that the origin of consistent asymmetry is ancient, dating back to before plants and animals independently became multicellular organisms,” said Mr. Levin, Director of the Centre for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts’s School of Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Levin’s team pinpointed tubulin proteins, an important component of cytoskeleton. Tubulin mutations are known to affect the asymmetry of a plant called Arabidopsis, and Mr. Levin’s previous work had suggested the possibility that laterality is ultimately triggered by some component of the cytoskeleton. In their latest experiment, the Tufts researchers injected mutated tubulins into early frog embryos. The resulting tadpoles were normal, except that their internal organs’ positions were randomly placed on either the left or the right side. Subsequent experiments found that mutated tubulins have the same effect also on left-right asymmetry of the nervous system in nematodes and on the function of human cells in culture.

Altogether, the Tufts experiment showed that tubulins are unique proteins in the asymmetry pathway that drive left-right patterning in a wide spectrum of separated species. Importantly, mutated tubulins perturbed asymmetry only when they were introduced immediately after fertilization, not when they were injected after the first cell division. This suggests that a normal cytoskeleton drives asymmetry at extremely early stages of embryogenesis. Furthermore, the Tufts biologists found that tubulins play a crucial role in the movement of other molecules to the left and right sides of the early embryo.

Protein function that protects cells during injury

Scientists in the United States have discovered a novel function for a protein that protects cells during injury and could eventually translate into treatment for a range of diseases. A type of protein called thrombospondin (Thbs) activates a protective pathway that prevents heart cell damage in mice undergoing simulated extreme hypertension, cardiac pressure overload and heart attack. “Our results suggest that medically this protein could be targeted as a way to help people with many different disease states where various organs are under stress,” stated Mr. Jeffery Molkentin, lead investigator and a researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Thbs proteins are produced by the body in cells where tissues are being injured, reconfigured or remodelled, such as in chronic cardiac disease. They appear in part of the cell’s internal machinery called the endoplasmic reticulum. There, Thbs triggers a stress response process to regulate production of other proteins and help correct or rid cells of proteins that misfold and lose their form and intended function. Misfolded proteins help drive tissue damage and organ dysfunction. The researchers zeroed in on how one thrombospondin protein (Thbs4) activates cellular stress responses in mice bred to over-express the protein in heart cells. Over-expression of Thbs4 had no effect on the animals prior to cardiac stress – although during simulated hypertension and cardiac infarction the protein reduced injury and prevented their death. Mice not bred for over-expression of Thbs4 were extremely sensitive to cardiac injury.

Important to the stress response process was Thbs4 activating and regulating Aft6alpha, a transcription factor that helps decode genetic instructions of other genes to control their expression. In the case of Aft6alpha in the heart, it helps mediate repair processes. When Aft6alpha is activated by Thbs4, the endoplasmic reticulum in cells expands and production of repair proteins is enhanced. Mice bred not to over-express cardiac Thbs4 did not exhibit activated Aft6alpha or robust repair processes following cardiac injury, leading to their poor outcomes.

Protein promotes resistance to anti-oestrogen drugs

At Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Centre, the United States, researchers have found a single molecule that is a major determinant of resistance to anti-oestrogen therapy used to treat or prevent breast cancer in high-risk women. Glucose-regulated protein 78 (GRP78) – activated as breast cells undergo stress induced by the agents tamoxifen and fulvestrant – turns off apoptosis (cell death response) and turns on autophagy, the scientists say. In autophagy, the cell “eats” and digests components within the cell body that have been harmed by the drugs, thus providing a host of nutrients needed to maintain life. The finding suggests that an agent that inhibits GRP78 might provide a solution for the large number of women who develop resistance to anti-oestrogen drugs.

“The novel signalling that we have uncovered could have high translational impact and bring a new and important perspective to the molecular crosstalk between cell stress, apoptosis and autophagy,” said Mr. Robert Clarke, the study’s senior author. A programme known as the “unfolded protein response” (UPR) is activated in breast cells treated with anti-oestrogen therapies once these cells sense stress. This response is activated when there is an accumulation of unfolded or misfolded proteins within the cell. “Since cancers often grow rapidly, tumours may lack enough energy to properly fold proteins into the correct orientation. These misfolded proteins accumulate in the cell and trigger UPR,” stated Ms. Katherine Cook, the study’s lead author. In normal cells, UPR is protective and if the stimuli last for an extended period, UPR becomes pro-death. But in cancers, UPR promotes survival. Scientists zeroed in on GRP78 as the master regulator of UPR, thus promoting anti-oestrogen resistance. It does this by preventing stressed cells to initiate apoptosis and by stimulating autophagy. When the scientists inhibited GRP78 in anti-oestrogen resistant cells, apoptosis was promoted and autophagy inhibited, resulting in increased cell deaths. GRP78 was also found to not play a role in breast cancers that are unresponsive to anti-oestrogen therapy, indicating that initial resistance and acquired resistance are separate biological phenomena.

Ancient enzymes that unwind RNA

Molecular biologists at the University of Texas at Austin, the United States, have cracked one of the mysteries of how double-stranded RNA is remodelled inside cells in their normal and disease states. The discovery may have implications for treating cancer and viruses in humans. The research found that DEAD-box proteins, which are ancient enzymes found in all forms of life, function as recycling “nanopistons”. They use chemical energy to clamp down and pry open RNA strands, thereby enabling the formation of new structures.

“If you want to couple fuel energy to mechanical work to drive strand separation, this is a very versatile mechanism,” said co-author Mr. Alan Lambowitz, the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Regents Chair in Molecular Biology in College of Natural Sciences and Director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology. DEAD-box proteins are the largest family of what are known as “RNA helicases”, which unwind RNA. These proteins, however, do not function like traditional helicases. The current study provides the critical information that explains how the unwinding reaction works with DEAD-box proteins.

Ms. Anna Mallam, a post-doctoral researcher in Mr. Lambowitz’s lab, postulated that DEAD-box proteins function modularly. One area on the protein binds to an adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecule, which is a cell’s energy source, while another area binds to the double-stranded RNA. Once the second domain is latched on to the RNA, explained Ms. Mallam, “and the first has got its ATP, the ‘piston’ comes down. “It has a sharp edge that drives between the two strands and also grabs on one strand and bends it out of the way.” This mechanism, found in Mss116p, a DEAD-box protein in yeast, is almost certainly universal to the entire family of the proteins, however, and therefore to all domains of life. The Mss116p proteins are particularly useful as a universal remodelling device because it recognizes the geometry of double-stranded RNA and can bind to any RNA. This flexibility is vital to the functioning of healthy cells, which rely on a range of RNA molecules for basic processes. It is also relevant in cancer cells, where over-expression of DEAD-box proteins may help drive uncontrolled cell proliferation, and in infections caused by pathogens, which rely on specific DEAD-box proteins for their propagation.


Treating drug-resistant brain tumour cells

New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the United States, explains why the incurable brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is highly resistant to current chemotherapies. The study, from the brain tumour research lab of Dr. John Kuo, an Assistant Professor of neurological surgery and human oncology at the university’s School of Medicine and Public Health, also reports success for a combination therapy that knocks out signalling of multiple members of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) family in brain cancer cells. This study shows that cancer stem cell growth was markedly inhibited by lapatinib treatment, which results in combined knockout of multiple EGFR family members. “This is good news, because these drugs target an important mechanism for the (GBM) cancer cells to grow so quickly and evade current therapies, and these molecularly targeted drugs are also well-tolerated by patients and have minimal side effects,” stated Dr. Paul Clark, a scientist in Dr. Kuo’s lab.

Alzheimer’s vaccine trial a success

A study led by Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, reports for the first time the positive effects of an active vaccine against Alzheimer’s disease. The new vaccine, CAD106, can prove a breakthrough in the search for a cure for this seriously debilitating dementia disease. The current hypothesis about its cause involves amyloid precursor protein (APP) residing in the outer membrane of nerve cells and that, instead of being broken down, forms ß-amyloid, a harmful substance, that accumulates as plaques and kills brain cells.

The new treatment involves active immunization, using a type of vaccine designed to trigger the body’s immune defence against ß-amyloid. Researchers found that 80 per cent of the patients involved in the trials developed their own protective antibodies against ß-amyloid without suffering any side effects over the three years of the study. Researchers believe that this suggests that the CAD106 vaccine is a tolerable treatment for patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Larger trials must be conducted now to confirm the CAD106 vaccine’s efficacy.

Drug for advanced basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, but in its advanced stages, basal cell carcinoma has the potential to become disfiguring and life threatening. An international Phase II study headed by Mayo Clinic, the United States, led to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approving the first drug of its kind to help advanced basal cell carcinoma patients. The study found that the new drug vismodegib shrank advanced basal cell carcinoma tumours in 43 per cent of patients with locally advanced disease and in 30 per cent of patients in whom the disease had spread to other organs.

Basal cell carcinoma occurs when a basal cell develops a mutation in its DNA, causing it to multiply rapidly, with the potential of forming a cancerous tumour. The new drug shrinks the tumour by shutting down a molecular signalling pathway that fuels the cancer cells, said lead researcher Dr. Aleksandar Sekulic, a dermatologist and cancer researcher at Mayo Clinic. He adds that there haven’t been any therapies earlier that worked to this degree against advanced basal cell carcinoma. However, more study is needed to determine if the drug has the potential to improve treatment for those in earlier stages of the disease, those with multiple basal cell carcinomas and those with a genetic predisposition to the disease.

Restoring vision with stem cell help

Human-derived stem cells could spontaneously form the tissue that develops into the part of the eye that allows us to see. In the future, transplantation of this 3D tissue could help patients with visual impairments see clearly. “This is an important milestone for a new generation of regenerative medicine,” affirmed senior study author Mr. Yoshiki Sasai, RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology, Japan. “Our approach opens a new avenue to the use of human stem cell-derived complex tissues for therapy, as well as for other medical studies related to pathogenesis and drug discovery.”

During development, light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye, called the retina, is formed from a structure known as the optic cup. Mr. Sasai and his team employed optimized cell culture methods to realize this structure spontaneously from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) – cells derived from human embryos that are capable of developing into a wide variety of tissues. The hESC-derived cells formed the correct 3D shape and the two layers of the optic cup, including a layer containing a large number of light-responsive photoreceptor cells. Because retinal degeneration primarily results from damage to these cells, the hESC-derived tissue could be ideal transplantation material.

Nanoparticles could improve blood cancer treatment

At University of Notre Dame, the United States, researchers have engineered nanoparticles that show great promise for the treatment of multiple myeloma (MM), an incurable cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. One of the difficulties in treating MM is that cancer cells of this type start to develop resistance to doxorubicin, the leading chemotherapeutic treatment, when they adhere to tissue in bone marrow. “The nanoparticles we have designed accomplish many things at once,” said Mr. Baaar Bilgicer, Assistant Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and chemistry and biochemistry. First, the nanoparticles reduce the development of resistance to doxorubicin. Second, they get the cancer cells to actively consume the drug-loaded nanoparticles. Third, they reduce the toxic effect the drug has on other healthy organs.

The exterior of MM cells has specific receptors that cause the cells to stick to bone marrow tissue and turn on the drug resistance mechanisms. But the nanoparticles are coated with a special peptide that targets these receptors. The nanoparticles bind to the receptors and prevent MM cells from adhering to the bone marrow. The particles also carry the chemotherapeutic drug with them. When a particle attaches itself to an MM cell, the cell rapidly takes up the nanoparticle, and only then is the drug released, causing the DNA of cancer cell to break apart and the cell to die. The team plans more research and testing to improve the design of the nanoparticles and to find the optimum amount and combination of chemotherapy drugs for this new treatment.

Major breakthrough in hepatitis C vaccine development

Researchers at Burnet Institute, Australia, have solved a hepatitis C vaccine mystery that, once developed, could be the first-ever preventative vaccine for the virus. The vaccine, currently undergoing formal preclinical studies, is the result of breakthrough work done by Ms. Heidi Drummer, an Associate Professor at Burnet Institute, with her team from the Institute’s Centre for Virology. Hepatitis C has the ability to alter its structure to evade the immune response. The research team overcame this major hurdle, developing a vaccine candidate that protects against a number of different hepatitis C strains. “Our vaccine is unique as it contains only the most essential, conserved parts of the major viral surface protein, eliciting antibodies that prevent both closely and distantly related hepatitis C viruses from entering cells, thereby preventing infection,” Prof. Drummer said.

Growing tissues with embedded nanoscale sensors

A multi-institutional research team in the United States has developed a method for embedding networks of biocompatible nanoscale wires within engineered tissues. These networks – which mark the first time that electronics and tissue have been truly merged in 3D – allow direct tissue sensing and stimulation, a potential boon for development of engineered tissues that incorporate capabilities for monitoring and stimulation. The research team was led by Dr. Daniel Kohane from the Department of Anesthesia at Boston Children’s Hospital.

A major challenge in developing bioengineered tissues is creating systems to sense what is going on within a tissue after it has been grown and/or implanted. Similarly, researchers have struggled to develop methods to directly stimulate engineered tissues and measure cellular reactions. “In the body, the autonomic nervous system keeps track of pH, chemistry, oxygen and other factors, and triggers responses as needed. We need to be able to mimic the kind of intrinsic feedback loops the body has evolved in order to maintain fine control at the cellular and tissue level,” Dr. Kohane explained.

Dr. Kohane’s lab built mesh-like networks of nanoscale silicon wires (80 nm in diameter). The networks were porous enough to allow the team to seed them with cells and encourage those cells to grow in 3D cultures. Using heart and nerve cells as their source material and a selection of biocompatible coatings, the team engineered tissues containing embedded nanoscale networks without affecting the viability or activity of cells. Via the networks, researchers could detect electrical signals from cells deep within the engineered tissues, as well as measure changes in those signals in response to cardio- or neurostimulating drugs.


Asiatic pear genome sequenced

The sequencing of the Asiatic pear genome was recently completed by an international consortium of seven universities and institutions, including the University of Illinois, the United States. “Our role on the team was to work on the strategy for sequencing, analysing the data, understanding some of the biological processes and writing the manuscript,” stated University of Illinois plant molecular geneticist Mr. Schuyler Korban, whose lab had previously been part of a consortium that sequenced woodland strawberry genome. “We ended up with an assembly that is 97.1 per cent correct rather than 50 or 60 per cent,” Mr. Korban stated. “The knowledge of the pear genome will greatly facilitate comparative genomics study for identification of genes of consumer and grower interest in the Rosaceae family,” stated Mr. Awais Khan, a postdoctoral research scientist working in Mr. Korban’s lab. “Ultimately, this will lead to the rapid improvement of these fruits for disease resistance and fruit quality traits.”

Gene discovery may lead to high-quality tomato varieties

For decades, plant breeders in the tomato industry have selected varieties that are uniformly light green before they ripen, in order to produce tomatoes that can be harvested at the same time. However, this characteristic comes with an unintended reduction in sugars that compromises the flavour of the fresh fruit and its desirability for processing. Now, a new discovery could make more tomatoes taste like heirlooms, according to an international research team led by a plant scientist at University of California (UC)-Davis, the United States. The discovery of the gene responsible for the trait in wild and traditional varieties provides a strategy to recapture quality characteristics that had been unknowingly bred out of modern cultivated tomatoes. “Now that we know that some of the qualities that people value in heirloom tomatoes can be made available in other types of tomatoes, farmers can have access to more varieties of tomatoes that produce well and also have desirable colour and flavour traits,” said Ms. Ann Powell, a biochemist in the Department of Plant Sciences and a lead author of the study.

The UC Davis team began studying the genes influencing tomato fruit development and ripening after spending two summers screening tomato plants for transcription factors that might play a role in both fruit colour and quality. Transcription factors are proteins that regulate genes, or turn them on and off. These factors themselves are expressed by genes. Partnering with researchers at universities in the United States and Spain, who were mapping regions of the tomato genome, the scientists discovered two transcription factors, named GLK1 and GLK2, that control the development of chloroplasts – organelles in plant cells that enable plants to photosynthesize, converting solar energy into sugars and other compounds that influence flavour and colour. The researchers found in a collection of mutant and wild tomato species dark green tomatoes that naturally express GLK2 produced ripe fruit with high levels of sugars or soluble solids, vital for processing tomatoes, as well as higher levels of the health-promoting compound lycopene.

Advanced techniques could propel crop improvement

Scientists could take longer strides towards crop improvement if there were wider adoption of advanced techniques used to understand the mechanisms that allow plants to adapt to their environments, according to current and former Purdue University researchers. Mr. Brian Dilkes, an Assistant Professor of genetics at Purdue, and Mr. Ivan Baxter, currently a research computational biologist with Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), argue that current technology could allow scientists to match physiological and genetic characteristics of plants with the soil characteristics that promote or inhibit their growth. By making those connections, the time necessary to improve plants that are coping with changing environmental and climatic conditions can be reduced.

The majority of a plant’s make-up, other than carbon dioxide, comes from elements and minerals absorbed from the soil as the plant grows. The physiological and genetic mechanisms that allow plants to obtain iron from the soil, for instance, can also cause the plant to accumulate other elements. Understanding how those changes interact is an important piece of improving plants, Mr. Baxter said. “This is just a hint of the complexity that is out there,” stated Baxter, who did his post-doctoral research at Purdue and now works at the ARS Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre. A wider adoption of molecular phenotyping techniques, such as genome-wide association mapping and ionomics, could allow scientists to work with multiple elements and genes at the same time. “By focusing on one gene or one element at a time, you miss out on the other physiological mechanisms occurring in the plant,” Mr. Dilkes explained. Genome-wide association mapping allows scientists to find genetic associations among multiple phenotypes (physical traits). The process quickly the genes that might be responsible for the physical characteristics. Ionomics studies the elemental composition of plants and how those compositions alter in response to environmental or genetic changes.

Rice varieties score low in glycemic index

Researchers from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Philippines, and Food Futures Flagship of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) analysed 235 types of rice from around the world and found that the glycemic index (GI) varies from one type of rice to another, with most varieties scoring a low to medium GI. This finding is good news because it not only means rice can be part of a healthy diet for the average consumer, it also means people with diabetes, or at risk of diabetes, can select the right rice to help maintain a healthy, low GI diet.

The study found that the GI of rice ranges from a low of 48 to a high of 92, with an average of 64. The research team also identified the key gene that determines the GI of rice, an important achievement that offers rice breeders the opportunity to develop varieties with different GI levels to meet consumer needs. Future development of low GI rice would also help food manufacturers to develop new, low GI food products based on rice.

Low GI foods are those measured 55 and less, medium GI are those measured from 56 to 69, while high GI measures 70 and above. When food is measured to have a ‘high GI’, it means it is easily digested and absorbed by the body, which often causes blood sugar levels to fluctuate, thereby increasing the chances of getting diabetes and making management of Type 2 diabetes difficult. Conversely, foods with low GI are those that have slow digestion and absorption rates in the body, causing a gradual and sustained release of sugar into the blood, which has been proven to be beneficial to health, including reducing the chances of developing diabetes.

New oat variety developed

Plant breeders at Clemson University, the United States, have developed a new high-yielding variety of oats. Named Graham, the new variety grows to medium height, withstands falling over (lodging), matures earlier and produces more seed than comparable varieties. Mr. Chris Ray, Director of the S.C. Crop Improvement Association, which grows certified seed for sale to the public, said that the new variety has excellent seed yield potential, exceeding the Rodgers variety by about 290 kg per acre at some locations.

The seed is produced at Clemson University Experiment Station research centres and made available to producers. “Better seed means quicker emergence, better stand establishment and vigorous growth to suppress weed infestations,” stated Mr. Ray. Uniform plant development – flowering and maturity – also makes it easier to time application of fungicide or insecticide. It also means easier harvest and lower drying costs, Mr. Ray points out.

White rot fungus boosts ethanol production

Scientists reported new evidence that a white rot fungus holds promise in the search for a way to use waste corn stalks, cobs and leaves – rather than corn itself – to produce ethanol to extend supplies of fuel. According to Mr. Yebo Li and colleagues, corn ethanol supplies are facing a crunch because corn is critical for animal feed and food. They note that the need for new sources of ethanol has shifted focus to using stover – the most abundant agricultural residue in the United States, estimated at 170-256 million tonnes per year. The challenge is to find a way to break down tough cellulose material in cobs, stalks and leaves – so that sugars inside can be fermented to ethanol.

Previous studies have indicated that the white rot fungus (Ceriporiopsis subvermispora) showed promise for breaking down cellulose prior to treatment with enzymes to release the sugars. To advance that knowledge, researchers evaluated how well the fungus broke down different parts of corn stover and improved the sugar yield. Treating stover with the white rot fungus for one month enabled extraction of up to 30 per cent more sugar from the leaves and 50 per cent more from the stalks and cobs. As corn leaves help control soil erosion when left in the field, using only the cobs and stalks for fuel production makes the most sense in terms of sustainable agriculture.


Jatropha, Challenges for a New Energy Crop: Genetic Improvement and Biotechnology

This guidebook reports on the state of the art of scientific investigations that were made during the past 10 years on the new crop Jatropha curcas. The progresses obtained on the knowledge of this abstemious, semi-wild species are already impressive and were mainly achieved in just a decade (2001-2011). This knowledge extends from basic jatropha physiology and biological reproduction to the basic agronomic practices and systems for its productive management. It also includes the complete set of biotechnological tools – such as in vitro culture, genetic transformation, genome sequencing, genetic maps and marker-assisted selection – that are necessary for its selective breeding. These scientific and technological achievements pave the way for the future technological management and domestication of jatropha as an industrial oilseed crop that is able of contributing towards the feeding of the transport system.

Contact: Springer GmbH, Haberstrasse 7, 69126, Heidelberg, Germany. Tel: +49 (6221) 345 4301; Fax: +49 (6221) 345 4229; E-mail:

Tissue Engineering (Methods in Molecular Medicine)

Over the past decade, tissue engineering has spread in importance in fields as distinct as biotechnology, biopharmaceutical manufacturing, chemical engineering, cell biology, developmental biology, gene therapy, medical sciences and organic chemistry. In this second edition, experts from these various disciplines share recent advances in tissue engineering-related methodologies to provide a comprehensive volume that integrates a wide spectrum of methods. Written in the format of the highly successful Methods in Molecular Medicine™ series, each chapter seeks to drive tissue engineering into a clinical reality, describing step-by-step laboratory protocols, lists of necessary materials, and tips on troubleshooting and avoiding known pitfalls.

Contact: Humana Press, 999 Riverview Drive, Suite 208, Totowa, NJ, 07512, United States of America. Tel: +1 (973) 2561 699; Fax: +1 (973) 2568 341; Website:


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