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CropBiotech Update 12 December 2008
December 12, 2008
FAO: Almost 1 Billion People are Starving, Food Prices Still High
DOE Joint Genome Institute Completes Soybean Genome

Kenya Approves Biosafety Law
African President Receives FAO Award
Arcadia and AATF to Develop Hardy Rice Varieties for Africa

Cuba Set to Embrace Biotech
Computer Model Predicts Crops' Yield for Bioenergy Production
Prospects Bright for GM Peanut
Russian Wheat Aphids are No Match for New Barley
Danforth Center Receives Grants to Study False Flax, Plant Metabolomics

Asia and the Pacific 
Indian Minister Calls for Biotechnology in Potato Improvement
Bangladesh Ag Minister Calls for Gene Revolution After Green Revolution
New Zealand: New Plant and Food Research Institute Formed
RR 2 Yield Soybean Gets EU Approval
EFSA: Austria’s GM Maize Ban Unjustified
EU Court Fines France for Delaying GMO Law

The Search for ABA Receptors Continues
Scientists Find UV-B Receptor in Plant Roots
Natural Selection of Gene Function Drives Retrotransposon Evolution in Rice



High food prices have pushed an additional 40 million people into hunger this year, increasing the total number of starving people to 963 millions worldwide or 14 percent of the world’s population, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The UN agency reports that although prices of major cereals fell by more than half from their peaks earlier this year, they are still 28 percent higher on average than two years ago. The world hunger situation may further deteriorate as the financial crisis hits the real economies of more and more countries.

The vast majority of the world's undernourished people live in developing countries, with 65 percent in seven countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Nearly two-thirds of the world's hungry live in Asia and one in three people - or 236 million - are chronically hungry in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This sad reality should not be acceptable at the dawn of the 21st century, at a time when our efforts are focused on liberty and human rights,” FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said in a statement. Diouf further noted that the goal of reducing by half the number of undernourished people by 2015 is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

For more information, read http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/8836/icode/  FAO's The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008 is available for download at http://www.fao.org/docrep/011/i0291e/i0291e00.htm

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Soybean is an important agricultural commodity next only to corn. Hence, the research community stands to benefit from the complete draft assembly of the soybean (Glycine max) genetic code released by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI). This information is important to advance new breeding strategies for the crop that accounts for 70 percent of the world’s edible protein. Soybean is also an emerging feedstock for biodiesel production.

“The genome sequence is the direct result of a memorandum of understanding between DOE and the US Department of Agriculture to increase inter-agency collaboration in plant genomics,” said DOE Under Secretary for Science Dr. Raymond L. Orbach. “We are proud to support this major scientific breakthrough that will not only advance our knowledge of a key agricultural commodity but also lead to new insights into biodiesel production.”

See the DOE news release at http://www.jgi.doe.gov/News/news_12_08_08.html

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After rigorous and extensive stakeholder consultations since 2002, the Kenyan Parliament overwhelmingly passed the Biosafety Bill on December 9, 2008. The Bill was supported by Cabinet ministers and other parliamentarians who debated it from a highly informed perspective. The Bill is a fundamental instrument to comply with requirements of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and safeguard Kenyans against unintended use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) especially transboundary movements. Minister for Agriculture William Ruto said that "The benefits arising out of the Bill are enormous. It gives this country a comprehensive and coordinated manner in which to tap benefits from research and enhance self sufficiency in food production”.

The law seeks to facilitate responsible research and commerce in GM products through a transparent science-based and predictable process. Contributing to the debate, Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology Sally Kosgey stressed"We should not be afraid of science or be afraid to move forward. The country is struggling for food and we want to get our scientists not to live in Geneva and elsewhere, but to have the protection of the law and do research here in their own country”. In her concluding remarks and vote of thanks Dr. Kosgey cautioned the media against sensationalizing matters of national interest but instead to consult and cover issues objectively and in a balanced manner. In recognizing her efforts, Minister for Lands James Orengo said I just want to note the able manner in which the Minister has piloted this Bill through the three stages, and the mode of consensus that has been achieved during the debate in the House. I believe that if some of us can follow her footsteps, business in the House will be undertaken very expeditiously."

The law now awaits presidential assent and once gazetted, modalities of establishing the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) will be initiated to steer regulatory approvals and decision-making in moving on-going confined field trials of GM insect- resistant cotton, maize and other products to the next level of commercialization. The passing of the Bill is a major milestone because of the strategic importance of Kenya in Africa and the international community. The country now joins the ranks of other African countries that have enacted biosafety laws including Cameroon, Tanzania, Malawi, Mauritius, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Namibia, Mali and Zimbabwe. In September 2008, the government launched a five-year National Biotechnology Awareness Strategy (BioAWARE-Kenya) as a mechanism for improving public understanding and awareness of biotechnology through dissemination of accurate, timely and balanced information.

For more information on the Biosafety Law, contact Mr. Harrison Macharia,Chief Science Secretary, The National Council for Science and Technology at harrison@ncstnbo.or.ke or harimacharia@yahoo.com

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Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf received the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Ceres Medal for her outstanding contribution to food security and agricultural development. In ceremonies at the National Agricultural Fair in Voinjama, Liberia, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf lauded her determination to invest in agriculture despite the international financial crisis. The Ceres Award is named after the Roman goddess of agriculture.

Read the FAO news articles at http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/8842/icode/

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California-based Arcadia Biosciences and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) announced an agreement in which Arcadia will perform technology development activities for nitrogen use efficient (NUE) and salt-tolerant African rice. Under the agreement, Arcadia will perform plant transformation, greenhouse trials and field trials in the United States, and will work alongside AATF-contracted researchers in Africa to facilitate a rapid technology transfer process. Earlier this year, Arcadia provided a compensation-free technology license to AATF for the development of improved rice varieties, which the foundation will offer to smallholder African farmers royalty-free.

Arcadia and AATF, a not-for-profit organization “focused on the access and delivery of new agricultural technologies for African smallholder farmers”, believe that availability of NUE and salinity-tolerant rice can help alleviate agricultural pressures on African farmers and can minimize the Continent’s dependency on food imports.

Read the press release at http://www.arcadiabio.com/pr_0032.php

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Genetically modified plants may soon take roots in Cuba, according to Institute for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Director Carlos Borroto. The country hopes that by adopting GM crops, it will free itself of agricultural imports. Cuba currently has to import more than 50 percent of its food. Insect and herbicide-resistant transgenic maize varieties developed by Cuban scientists are currently in the farm trial phase in the provinces of La Habana, Santa Clara, Ciego de Avila, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba, according to a report by Granma Internacional. Cuban research institutes are also working hard to develop genetically modified soy, potatoes and tomatoes.

Read the original article at http://www.granma.cu/ingles/2008/diciembre/juev11/corn.html

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ALMANAC, a computer model developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, is able to evaluate the use of crops such as corn and switchgrass for bioenergy production. Originally used as a crop management tool and later as a pasture management tool, ALMANAC is able to accurately predict a crop’s simulated yield within 1 to 10 percent of actual yields.

 The model helps determine outcomes on arid rangeland, marginal lands and more fertile lands, thus helping farmers alleviate concerns about shifting acres from food to fuel. It also predicts the benefits of anticipated breeding improvements such as yield and water use efficiency.

ALMANAC is online at http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=16601. The ARS news item is at http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=1261http://www.isaaa.org/contentmanager/newsletter/www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr

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Good news for people who love to eat but are allergic to peanuts. Peggy Ozias-Akins and colleagues at the University of Georgia in Tifton are using genetic engineering to grow hypoallergenic peanuts. While the goal is not to create completely allergen-free peanuts, it could mean fewer outbreaks and even fewer deaths.

Certain genes are responsible for molecules that trigger allergenic reaction with some proteins causing more severe allergic reactions than others. The research team tested peanuts that do not produce two proteins that are among the most intense allergens. The research appears in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 

Visit http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/11/peanuts-with-le.html for the media release.

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Troublesome Russian wheat aphids hoping to feed and live comfortably on barley plants are in for bad news. Scientists from the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) developed a new barley variety that is highly resistant to the insect pest. Russian wheat aphids, or Diuraphis noxia, are major pests of cereal crops. In the first 20 years after its introduction into the US, the pest has caused wheat and barley farmers billions of dollars in losses.

Phil Bregitzer and his colleagues invested more than 10 years in developing the superior barley RWA-1758. The new variety offers barley growers in states such as Montana, Colorado, and Nebraska—where infestations of the insect can be severe—an effective, economical and environmentally sound way to quell the aphid. Bregitzer noted that cost-effective chemical controls are still not available for combating the insect. RWA-1758’s yields are on par with those of popular barley varieties.

Read the article at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2008/081208.htm

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The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center has received two grants totaling US$1.5 million from the Missouri Life Sciences Research Board. The first of the two grants will support a project in collaboration with the University of Missouri Delta Center to investigate developing Camelina sativa or false flax as a nonfood crop and for the production of value-added biotechnology products.

Scientists at the Danforth Center are also focusing their attention on plant metabolomics. Metabolomics is the study of unique “chemical fingerprints” known as metabolites that are produced by specific cellular processes. The second grant will lead to the purchase of a state of the art instrument that will establish a “robust metabolomics platform technology”. The instrument will help scientists working to improve plants as sources of food, biofuels, industrial enzymes, biomedicinals, among others to gain a more in-depth understanding of how changes in metabolic pathways affect the system as a whole.

Read the full article at http://www.danforthcenter.org/newsmedia/NewsDetail.asp?nid=156

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Mr. Sharad Pawar, Indian Minister of Agriculture, said that biotechnology can play a key role in the improvement of potato while inaugurating the Global Potato Conference (GPC) on 9-12 Dec 2008 at New Delhi. The conference was organized by the Indian Potato Association (IPA) along with Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI), and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The conference complemented FAO’s efforts which had earlier identified potato crop as “Food of the Future” and also declared 2008 as the “International Year of the Potato”. Mr. Pawar added that India is a partner in the multinational “Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium” to understand and utilize the genome based knowledge in potato improvement. He also said that the Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI) has already developed promising potato transgenics for late blight resistance and better nutritional qualities. Transgenics for better processing qualities, and viral and bacterial wilt resistance are also in progress. The rules for regulation of GM crops in India are well in place and ICAR has also prepared guidelines for registration and commercialization of plant varieties, he said.

Dr. Pamela K. Anderson, Director General of International Potato Center, highlighted that potato-based systems represent an increasingly important opportunity for the poor in terms of food and nutritional security. She reckons the losses caused by different diseases which reduce potential yield by 6 tons per hectare due to late blight, 5.1 tons due to non-availability of clean seeds, 2.8 tons due to viruses and 0.6 tons due to bacterial wilt; totaling to 14.5 tons per hectare, equivalent to the national average potato yield. Dr. Mangla Rai, Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research stressed on the integration of biotechnology tools with potato improvement activities. He emphasized the need to undertake focused research on development of transgenic potato with improved resistance to diseases and quality improvement.

The four day conference aims to share ideas on crop management and seed production using latest technologies and come out with recommendations for making potato cultivation eco-friendly, productive and profitable in India and abroad. For additional details about the Global Potato Conference (GPC) visit  http://www.gpc2008.in/

For more information about biotech development in India contact b.choudhary@cgiar.org or k.gaur@cgiar.org

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Bangladesh Minister of Agriculture CS Karim urged scientists and other stakeholders of biotechnology to work on various aspects of this new science to achieve food security in a country facing increasing population. He explained that the Green Revolution has ended and "we need to find more powerful gene revolution tools for food, feed, medicine, renewable energy and other human needs."  During the inauguration of the three-day long “International Symposium on Regulatory and Safety Issues on Biotech Research in Developing Countries” in Dhaka, he also lauded the role of scientists and policy makers in working towards regulatory mechanisms and the on-going trial of three GM crops in Bangladesh at various levels by both public and private sectors.

Dr. MHA Hassan, TWAS Executive Director, President Shamsher Ali of the Academy of Sciences, Vice Chancellor Jamilur Reza Choudhury of the BRAC University, and Minister (in charge) Manik Lal Samaddar of the Ministry of Science and Information & Communication Technology also spoke on the development of regulatory and safety capacity for biotechnological applications in Bangladesh. The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) and BRAC University in addition to other sponsors organized the symposium which was attended by around 50 foreign and 500 local participants. 

Additional information about the workshop can be obtained by emailing Dr. Khondoker Nasiruddin of the Bangladesh Biotechnology Information Center at nasir@yahoo.com.

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The New Zealand government is endorsing the merger of two of the country's largest science and research institutes. Crop and Food Research and HortResearch have joined forces and will be known as the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research. The merger will combine the country’s leading horticulture, arable and seafood research in a single, focused organization.

“This is a milestone in New Zealand’s science history. We are a small country and it is important for us to make best use of our scientific capabilities, particularly in the plant and food science areas,” says Minister of Research, Science and Technology Wayne Mapp.

The merged organization has over 900 staff based at sites throughout New Zealand as well as science and business development staff working in the USA, Europe, Asia and Australia. Annual revenues for the new company are expected to be in the region of $120 million.

Read the press release at http://www.crop.cri.nz/home/index.php

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The European Union has approved Monsanto’s Roundup Ready2Yield soybean for use in feed and food across its 27 nations for the next 10 years. The glyphosate-resistant soybean, however, is not intended to be grown in Europe's fields. The approval follows the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) scientific opinion concluding that the GM soybean "is unlikely to have any adverse effect on human and animal health or on the environment". EU laws allow GMO approvals if Council Ministers fail to reach a consensus under a complicated weighed voting system.

"The European Union regulatory approval demonstrates the growing acceptance of Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans throughout the world," said Brett Begemann, Monsanto's executive vice president of global commercial business. Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans have been approved in countries such as Australia, Canada, China, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

In September, the European Commission approved imports of Bayer CropScience’s herbicide-tolerant LibertyLink soybeans (A 2704-12).

For more information, visit http://www.monsanto.com/

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The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms concludes, once again, that Austria has presented no new scientific evidence that would justify a ban on two transgenic maize varieties. Since June 1999, Austria had prohibited the placing on the market of the EU-authorized maize events MON810 and T25 from the Monsanto and Bayer companies and justified this decision with reasons of health protection.

Austria invoked Article 16 of Directive 90/220/EEC (safeguard clause) to provisionally prohibit the import, processing and cultivation of the GM maize lines in its territory in May 2000. The European Commission requested EFSA earlier this year to define whether the information submitted by Austria comprises new information that would affect the environmental risk assessment for the uses of the GM maize varieties.

EFSA included in its assessment a widely promoted, controversial study conducted by Jurgen Zuntek and colleagues at the University of Vienna. The scientists allegedly found a link between GM maize (NK603 x Mon810) and infertility in laboratory mice. EFSA noted that methods used in the study are not routinely used for the safety assessment of whole foods and feeds. The GMO Panel also identified various deficiencies in data reporting, methodologies and statistical calculations, which do not allow any interpretation. "EFSA considers that these data do not invalidate the conclusions of the GMO Panel on the safety of MON810 maize.”

Download EFSA’s Scientific Opinion

at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/cs/BlobServer/Scientific_Opinion/gmo_op_ej891_austrian_safeg_

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The European Union Court of Justice has ordered France to pay a 10 million euros (US $13 million) fine for failing to update its laws on genetically modified organisms and foods. France’s refusal to implement the European Union’s GMO law is “unlawful” says the Luxembourg-based court and that it “finds that the breach serious, especially in the light of its impact on the public and private interests involved”.

France argued that it couldn’t adopt the GMO laws because of “internal difficulties” including violent anti-GMO demonstrations. The EU court, however, rejected those arguments. The country has begun implementing the GMO rules in July this year, nearly six years after the October 2002 deadline that the EU had set.

The press release is available at http://curia.europa.eu/en/actu/communiques/cp08/aff/cp080087en.pdf

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In 2006, a paper ‘made a splash’ in the plant biology world by identifying the elusive protein receptor of the phytohormone abscisic acid (ABA). The paper, published by the prestigious journal Nature, showed that FCA - an RNA binding protein involved in flowering - binds to ABA with high affinity. The study has been cited 120 times, and is the most highly cited paper among the 95 results for 'abscisic acid receptor' in the past three years. Nature is now retracting the paper after reports that the work could not be replicated.

ABA regulates various physiological processes such as stomatal closure, bud dormancy and seed germination. Being a stress hormone, ABA is a target for scientists hoping to develop drought and salinity-tolerant crops. Identification of ABA receptors will significantly advance the development of stress-proof plants and the retraction is a setback in the search to find ABA targets.

Two other ABA receptors have been reported, the plastid-associated Mg-cheltase H subunit and a protein originally identified as a membrane-bound G-protein-coupled receptor 2, using methods similar to those used in the retracted paper. Scientists now question the role of these proteins as ABA receptors.

Read the summary article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/456683a The original (retracted) paper can be downloaded athttp://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature04373 and the paper questioning this study is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature07646

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Scientists at the San Francisco State University and Carnegie Institute of Washington in the U.S. discovered that plant roots can sense ultraviolet-B (UV-B) light and have identified a specific gene that is a vital player in UV-B signaling. The researchers found that the gene RUS1 measures UV-B light levels and passes this information on to other parts of the plant responsible for growth and development.

It’s quite unusual that roots should have UV-B light sensors. But these sensors are important for young plants whose roots are resting on the soil surface. RUS1 is responsible for ensuring that seedlings grow normally even if their roots are exposed to UV-B light. Plants with mutated RUS1 become hypersensitive to UV-B and even under low intensity levels of UV-B light, their root growth is stunted and they fail to grow leaves.

The article was published in the Early Edition of PNAS. Read more at http://www.sfsu.edu/news/ and http://www.pnas.org/content/early/recent

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Transposons are small stretches of DNA that can move around to different positions in the genome of a single cell, and in the process dramatically increasing a genome's size. For years, researchers thought that most of this DNA was passive "junk" and knew little about it. New findings, however, are peeling back the odd and baffling world of transposons. Scientists at the University of Georgia found that natural selection on gene function is driving the evolution of one kind of transposable element called the LTR retrotransposon (LTR-R). LTR-R are a subclass of transposons particularly abundant in plants that replicate by reverse transcription (using an RNA intermediate in replication).

The researchers analyzed the patterns of genetic variation among LTR-R in rice “to investigate the type of selective forces that potentially limit their amplification and subsequent population of a nuclear genome.” They found that LTR-R are under significant evolutionary constraint, by finding strong purifying selection on genes involved in their replication and life-cycle. They also discovered that, regardless of the family that any the LTR-R sequences might belong, they show similar "life-histories."

“What the scientists found helps explain why these elements can, while lying quiet for millions of years, suddenly amplify within genomes while not causing more long-term harm than to take up space,” noted lead researcher Regina Baucom.

Read the paper at http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/gr.083360.108

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The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), in collaboration with the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, Washington DC), will conduct a two-day international conference titled, "Measures of Hope and Promises Delivered: An International Conference on Socioeconomic and Environmental Impact Assessment of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops." It will be held on April 21-22, 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand.

The conference aims to provide a better understanding of the methodologies, tools, insights, and experiences in examining the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of adopting biotechnology applications, particularly GM crops. It will also examine the factors that encourage or hinder the development and diffusion of new agricultural biotechnologies, and the institutional arrangements and/or policy environment influencing them.

For more details, contact Dr. Arnulfo Garcia at agg@agri.searca.org or Roberta Gerpacio at rvg@agri.searca.org

The Indian Merchants’ Chamber (IMC) is organizing a seminar on “Achieving self sufficiency in agricultural production and nutrition” on 20 December 2008 in Mumbai, India. The program aims to discuss topics relevant to food security including increasing production and productivity of grains, horticulture, oilseeds, pulses and cotton. The program will also deliberate on the prospects of GM crops and regulatory and policy reforms in India.

For program details visit http://www.imcnet.org/PDF/invitation%20Final.pdf or email Mr. Varun Miglani at varun@imcnet.org.

The 10th International Cotton Conference will be held in Gdynia, Poland on September 3-4, 2009. Participants from all over the world are expected to take part in this important, bi-annual cotton event. With the theme “Natural Fibers - Their Attractiveness in Multidirectional Applications”, the conference will coincide with the International Year of Natural Fibers.

Visit the conference website at http://www.gca.org.pl/x.php/2,326/10th-International-Cotton-Conference.html for more information

India’s seed man and philanthropist, Dr B.R. Barwale released his autobiography “My Journey with Seeds and the Development of Indian Seed Industry” on December 2, 2008 at Indian Merchants’ Chamber, Mumbai. His autobiography highlights his journey with seeds, growth and development of the Indian seed industry over five decades. He also narrates his autobiographical sketch, experiences with the seed industry in his home state Maharashtra, opportunities in seed production and challenges to move the seed industry forward in India. The book also captures his own journey of life, his interest in agriculture, the birth of Mahyco, R&D of seeds, vegetable seed industry, seed associations, entry of multinationals, and his involvement in social philanthropy.

For a copy of the book contact Mr. Dinesh C. Joshi at dineshjoshi@barwalefoundation.org or Ms. Aban Kapadia at aban.kapadia@mahyco.com. More information about Barwale family, Barwale Foundation and Mahyco at http://www.barwalefoundation.org/ and http://www.mahyco.com/

The Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology (APCoAB) and Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions have published a technical bulletin entitled “Production and Cultivation of Virus-Free Citrus Samplings for Citrus Rehabilitation in Taiwan”. The bulletin, authored by Hong-Ji Su of the National Taiwan University, provides detailed methods and protocols for the production of disease-free planting material in citrus, including disease indexing, production of virus-free nursery, cultivation and health management of saplings in orchards.

Download the bulletin at http://www.apaari.org/new/images/AP_Documents/Pub_Reports/APCoAB/2008-citrus.pdf

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