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Colony Collapse Disorder has been in and out of the media since 2006. With conspiracy theories and non-science abounding, it can be hard to separate truth from fiction.

Last semester, Dr. Diana Cox Foster of Penn State spoke at Iowa State about her work with CCD. She has been studying bees for 20 years and heads a diverse team of researchers working to solve the mystery. She said that there there are quite a few “theories” that her team disagrees with. In particular, she said that CCD is not caused by the rapture or the Russians. She puts cell phones and genetically engineered crops in the same category, choosing instead to focus on legitimate leads. She says that there are many reasons why their group is not looking into these as possible causes, but one reason sticks out: some Amish and organic beekeepers whose hives are isolated from genetically engineered crops, many pesticides, and cell phones in the case of the Amish have experienced CCD, while some conventional beekeepers have not. In other words, there isn’t a common thread connecting colonies that have collapsed.

Despite the fact that scientists like Dr. Cox Foster have spoken on the lack of legitimacy of these theories, people continue to write about them, such as this example from the always creative Global Research. I won’t pick the article apart due to time constraints, but wanted to show the range of views. A lot of mainstream articles have less extreme views, but few if any make an effort to debunk the incorrect theories. Instead, they reinforce them! Karl over at Inoculated Mind has a nice post summarizing some issues with the cell phone and GMO theories that’s over a year old. If only the reporters would research as he did.

There is abundant evidence that the Bt protein Cry1Ab doesn’t affect non-target insects. A meta-analysis from Jan 2008 of 25 independent studies found “that Bt Cry proteins used in genetically modified crops commercialized for control of lepidopteran and coleopteran pests do not negatively affect the survival of either honey bee larvae or adults in laboratory settings.” A meta-analysis from May 2008 of a public database found no significant effect on type or number of arthropods in Bt and non-Bt crops. They did find, as have many others, that various types of insecticides decreases the type and number of arthropods.

A quick lit search did come up with a June 2008 study that showed decreased learning ability in bees that were force fed syrup containing very high concentrations of Bt that are not found in nature. This data might indicate the need for more research on bee physiology, but doesn’t mean that Bt isn’t safe for bees in the field.

Now that we know what it’s not, I’ll share with you what Dr. Cox Foster thinks are the most likely causes and solutions…

First is simple stress. This image of an almond grove from Klausesbees (which incidentally may be the same one that Dr. Foster used in her presentation) shows that bees don’t have many dining options. Instead of having wildflowers or even another crop such as strawberries under the almond trees, the grove is a virtual pollen desert when the trees aren’t in bloom. Other crops used to be grown with hedgerows separating smaller farms, but these have been all but eliminated as farms are consolidated. This type of agriculture is what led to bees being trucked across the country to keep up with crop flowering. Bees did not evolve in the conditions of being moved from state to state, feeding on one type of plant one day to something entirely different the next. A related problem could be the sugar and corn syrups that bees are fed before the crops bloom, just because bees haven’t evolved with this as a food source. The stress of the move and of the ever changing food sources might be too much to bear. The solution to this would be to have areas set aside for wildflowers that would both encourage natural bee hives and serve as a food source to local cultivated bee colonies when the local crops are out of season.

Second is a combination of mites, viruses, and other diseases. Dr. Cox Foster and her associates have sequenced DNA samples from bee hives and found a variety of surprising things, including Aspergillis fungus and the parasite Leishmania. Israeli virus (IAPV) correctly predicted collapsed hives more than any other factor. The virus is transmitted by Verroa mites (shown here in a photo from the USDA ARS). When bees are stressed, they are especially susceptible to mites which in turn makes them susceptible to disease. Royal jelly from China, used to feed prospective queen bees, was also found to contain IAPV. Also contributing to susceptibility is the decrease in genetic diversity among bee hives. One possible solution to the problem is breeding or engineering resistant bees. For example, Arizona beekeepers who have Africanized bees haven’t experienced CCD. Another solution is to develop “biocides” which would be like a medicine to help the bees fight off mites and disease. Vaccines aren’t an option because bees don’t have an adaptive immune system. Beekeepers who irradiate box components before placing a hive inside have had some success, because irradiation kills mites and bacteria.

Third is pesticides, less likely, but still under consideration. Researchers found copious residues of miticides (which some beekeepers apply to bees or to boxes) and other pesticides in the bee wax that beekeepers buy and place in new hives. Use of formic acid, considered a natural substance because it is produced by some species of ants, is widespread and may play a role in increasing bee stress and susceptibility to disease. Bees are affected by a wide range of insecticides, which obviously could play a role. However, there is no common pesticide reside in colonies that experience CCD.

Another hive related possibility is a little more difficult to understand and quantify. Some commercial beekeepers try to get a lot out of their hives. One practice that Dr. Cox Foster questions is too-frequent hive “splitting” because it leads to bee stress. I was also able to find some ruminations on the net that the large cell size used by commercial beekeepers to encourage bee growth may also encourage mite infestations, but couldn’t find any actual data on the subject (anyone need a summer project?).

After her presentation, Dr. Cox Foster shared these links that include more information and info on how individuals can help: The Pollinator Partnership, Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, and The Status of Pollinators in North America. Another source is the USDA Agricultural Research Service, who has multiple fact sheets, including Colony Collapse Disorder: A Complex Buzz.

One last thing I’d like to share before I end this post – bees are not the only pollinators out there. Of course some aspects of agriculture would have to change if we were no longer able to cart bees across the country, but it wouldn’t be the end of agriculture as some people have said. A Slate article from 2007 called Bee Not Afraid explains. Much of the information in the article matches things that Dr. Cox Foster said in the course of her lecture and in the Q&A session that followed./

 

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Good news from Africa – “Scientists and crop researchers at Kenya´s Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) developed the new wheat seeds over the past decade. Through a process called ‘mutation plant breeding’, they applied radiation-based techniques to modify crop characteristics and traits.” In 2001, KARI plant breeders released Njoro-BW1, their first mutant wheat variety. It is drought tolerant, moderately resistant to rust (a fungus), has good yield, and good flour quality. “Kenya´s plant breeders soon will release a second mutant wheat variety, code-named DH4, which shares most of the same good qualities of Njoro-BW1.” [Golden Wheat “Greens” Kenya´s Drylands]

It is indeed good news that Kenyan farmers have these lines of wheat with such improvements over unimproved varieties. However, radiation based so-called mutation plant breeding could have unintended changes in the genome. This technique, widely used in both organic and conventional crops, literally bombards the seeds with radiation. The seeds are allowed to germinate, and interesting mutants are used to create new lines. The problem is that multiple mutations can occur in the same seed, and some of those mutations may go undetected.

A February report entitled “Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion” from the National Institute of Health in Portugal indicates that this plant breeding tool may not be the best idea. The last few sentences of their abstract sums it up: “We found that the improvement of a plant variety through the acquisition of a new desired trait, using either mutagenesis or transgenesis, may cause stress and thus lead to an altered expression of untargeted genes. In all of the cases studied, the observed alteration was more extensive in mutagenized than in transgenic plants. We propose that the safety assessment of improved plant varieties should be carried out on a case-by-case basis and not simply restricted to foods obtained through genetic engineering.”

Trying to regulate GM or non-GM as broad categories are impossible, because each resulting plant variety is going to have its own “quirks”. If DH4 and Njoro-BW1 have been extensively tested for unwanted alteration in gene expression and subsequently released for general use, then they are reasonably safe (remember, nothing is definitive in science). Similarly, if transgenic plants such as Sub1A-1 rice have been tested and released, then they too can be used without worry. However, if plant varieties mutated with radiation are not adequately tested before release, then we might all have something to worry about. To my knowledge, only Canada requires testing of these crops.

We can’t even assume that traditional breeding by cross pollination is 100% safe because of natural mutation and new combinations of genes and alleles. Tomatoes, potatoes, and celery all naturally produce some nasty toxins. We’ve mostly bred them out, but there have been cases where the toxins appeared at higher levels through traditional breeding. These plants have much higher probability of danger for consumers than transgenic plants, but don’t have to be tested at all under current regulations in the US or EU.

Intragenic or cisgenic plants are our best opportunity for safe enhancement of food crops (cis- means same). This is a form of genetic engineering that uses the plant’s own genome as a source for new traits instead of other non-related organisms (has also been called GM-lite). To learn more about the idea, please see www.cisgenesis.com. Some people, including myself, believe that cisgenic crops should be regulated differently from transgenic crops that express proteins that don’t normally occur in that species. The applications of cisgenics are more limited than transgenics, but still there is a lot to be done. A great example of cisgenics is gene silencing, which can be used to inactivate unwanted genes, such as those that cause toxins. Examples that are currently being researched are less carcinogenic tobacco and rice that can more easily form hybrids. All of the benefits in KARI’s mutated wheat could have been accomplished with cisgenics.

JR Simplot is a company that is particularly interested in cisgenics, and has produced a lot of literature that essentially says that Monsanto’s way of creating new plant lines is not the right way. I think there’s room for both, but agree that cisgenics are inherently safer. I especially like the idea that cross pollination between cisgenic plants and wild varieties won’t be a problem, since these things could have all happened naturally anyway.

The idea of cisgenics has been around for quite a few years now, but scientists need to talk with the public about it, so the public can talk to their government representatives, so the representatives can go about getting the regulations changed.

Images from “Cisgenic plants are similar to traditionally bred plants: International regulations for genetically modified organisms should be altered to exempt cisgenesis“. Text to accompany images is as follows:

Definitions of key terms in relation to plants

Cisgenesis is the genetic modification of a recipient plant with a natural gene from a crossable—sexually compatible—plant. Such a gene includes its introns and is flanked by its native promoter and terminator in the normalsense orientation.Cisgenic plants can harbour one or more cisgenes, but they do not contain any transgenes.

Transgenesis is the genetic modification of a recipient plant with one or more genes from any non-plant organism, or from a donor plant that is sexually incompatible with the recipient plant. This includes gene sequences of any origin in the anti-sense orientation, any artificial combination of a coding sequence and a regulatory sequence, such as a promoter from another gene, or a synthetic gene.

Traditional breeding encompasses all plant breeding methods that do not fall under current GMO regulations.As the European legal framework defines GMOs and specifies various breeding techniques that are excluded from the GMO regulations,we use this framework as a starting point, particularly the European Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment (European Parliament, 2001). Excluded from this GMO Directive are longstanding cross breeding, in vitro fertilization, polyploidy induction, mutagenesis and fusion of protoplasts from sexually compatible plants (European Parliament, 2001).

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Arcadia Biosciences has developed rice that uses nitrogen more efficiently, so the plants need less fertilizer. As described in the Guardian yesterday, Arcadia “is working with the Chinese government to reward farmers in China that grow the firm’s genetically modified (GM) rice, with carbon credits that they can sell for cash.”

The rice will reduce fertilizer run off (responsible for oceanic dead zones) and decrease emissions of nitrogen oxide. How does it work? Arcadia’s website isn’t telling all, but I was able to find a paper in the Canadian Journal of Botany: Engineering nitrogen use efficiency with alanine aminotransferase. See the abstract below:

Nitrogen (N) is the most important factor limiting crop productivity worldwide. The ability of plants to acquire N from applied fertilizers is one of the critical steps limiting the efficient use of nitrogen. To improve N use efficiency, genetically modified plants that overexpress alanine aminotransferase (AlaAT) were engineered by introducing a barley AlaAT cDNA driven by a canola root specific promoter (btg26). Compared with wild-type canola, transgenic plants had increased biomass and seed yield both in the laboratory and field under low N conditions, whereas no differences were observed under high N.The transgenics also had increased nitrate influx. These changes resulted in a 40% decrease in the amount of applied nitrogen fertilizer required under field conditions to achieve yields equivalent to wild-type plants.

The first thing I like about their strategy is that they are using a root specific promoter. Plants only absorb nitrogen (N) from their roots, so don’t need N uptake enzymes in other tissues. Even better, the promoter is from the species being transformed so it will presumably work more effectively than a foreign promoter. The researchers chose a barley gene instead of simply using the corresponding rice gene, but there may be a reason that I don’t know about. The protein produced by the gene is one that is native to rice, however, so it is a little closer to cisgenic than transgenic (when compared to bacterial genes and such).

“Alanine aminotransferase (AlaAT) catalyses the reversible transfer of an amino group from glutamate to pyruvate to form 2-oxoglutarate and alanine.” The enzyme is present in virtually all organisms. In plants, AlaAT causes the breakdown of alanine during times of hypoxia (oxygen shortage). “Therefore, AlaAT appears to be crucial for the rapid conversion of alanine to pyruvate during recovery from low-oxygen stress.” [Miyashita et. al.]

So, it sounds like the engineered plants are able to absorb N at a higher rate, and that N goes on along normal pathways to create proteins – resulting in increased yield despite low N concentrations in the soil.

I won’t go into all of the benefits of using less fertilizer here – but there are many. In short, it will save farmers money while being a huge boon for the environment, and producing more food for growing human populations.