The team began working with soy and corn because they are crops of interest for Colombian farmers. According to the National Grain and Vegetable Producers Federation, more than 96% of the soy and close to 85% of the corn seed used in Colombia is imported. This concern led the Federation to fund research for more than six years.
The UNal group has already produced the first off-patent corn seed resistant to glyphosate in the world. After six years of work, this corn has been authorized by the Colombian Agricultural and Livestock Institute (ICA, for its Spanish acronym) for commercialization of seed, and currently documentation is being reviewed for permission to use in human and animal nutrition.
The objective is to use a hybrid already developed by multinational companies whose patents are of the public domain and produce biosimilars, which follow the line of generic drugs. An example of this is acetylsalicylic acid –the active ingredient of aspirin– which was patent-protected for 20 years by Bayer, to be now unencumbered for anybody to produce freely for different uses.
What Chaparro’s team proposed was to use this same concept to plant genetic engineering, but then they discovered that many elements –such as genes, proteins, and inclusively lab protocols – have already been patented. In the case of glyphosate-tolerant soy, they found that more than 140 patents are property of multinational companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, and Pioneer, among others.
“We hope we can provide this technology to people so they can use it and be competitive in the market,” said Chaparro, and added that his first work was that of a detective to become cognizant of what technology used Monsanto to develop glyphosate-tolerant soy.
The key was in the DNA, this is why they analyzed the genetic material of this soy to be sure it was in the public domain for Colombia, as it is worth noting that patents are regional, as a patent for the United States is not necessarily applicable in Colombia and vice versa.
“Once we had that information we performed computer tests simulating DNA and verifying that it actually worked. We sent this virtual DNA information to China and for US $1,500 they turn virtual DNA into real DNA,” said Chaparro.
Eight weeks later we received a test tube with the genetic information ready for use; with this, we are currently testing 4 soy varieties with hopes that in two years we can have the first commercial biosimilar in the world.
The team used the bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens to introduce a gene –discovered and developed by Monsanto– to the plant to provide it tolerance to glyphosate, which is not selective and eliminates any plant it comes in contact with as it prevents these from obtaining certain amino acids and produce proteins.
The first step is to plant the soy seeds in the lab and let them grow for five days. Then they open them in half and the cotyledons are extracted, i.e., the first leaves coming from the embryo and scraped a bit with a scalpel, and each one is planted in a different pot.
“We co-cultivate these explants in presence of Agrobacterium. This bacteria transfers a piece of genetic information through a molecule that the plant incorporates into its DNA, known as a plasmid, therefore this is key to happen when it sprouts,” said Chaparro.
Between 8 and 12 weeks, each cotyledon turns into a complete plant, which is eventually planted in the field and grows just like any other and produces seeds that are gathered and planted gain. These new plants are exposed to the herbicide, and the results can be that they all die or they are all resistant,” said Chaparro and adds that to carry out this type of experiments it is necessary to have authorization from ICA and only five higher education institutions have it, including UNal.
To become cognizant if the bacteria have new genetic information they are cultivated in the lab in presence of antibiotics where only bacteria with the new plasmid can thrive. Later, to be sure, they extract the plasmid DNA from the bacteria and run a PCR test confirming if they effectively have the aggregate genes.
Chaparro highlights that genetic modification is not new, as it has been occurring for 15,000 years with the domestication of animals and agriculture. An example of this is bananas, whose modern version is very different from its ancestor.
After the domestication process, came conventional genetic improvement. There, father and mother plants or animals are bred and the progeny with desired features are selected; think about it as breeding cows for having better milk production or breeding flowers to obtain improved plants.
This is the basis for the production of improved seeds, an industry that yields almost US $50,000 a year. The current process is genetic engineering, where a specific trait is added using techniques such as the before mentioned Agrobacterium tumefaciens.
“We must leave the idea behind that transgenics are harmful or damaging for the market as millions of people use transgenics daily in form of insulin, 40% of the drugs are the product of transgenic organisms, and 90% or more of beers or wines are produced using transgenic yeasts,” said Chaparro.
For the researcher, this progress is models that may be replicated in other plants and with other characteristics, such as the resistance to insects and pests, provided that two conditions are complied with, one is to be technologies of public domain.
For instance, a bacterium has chromosomal DAN, which has the basic information for its existence; however, it can have a second type of molecule also with genetic information. What is special is that it is independent and often can contain genes that help it survive in special conditions, like when there is no food available. This information is generally within circular structures, non-vital for bacteria known as plasmids.
In the case of Agrobacterium t., the plasmid has a special property capable of introducing genetic information inside infected plant cells to develop a type of tumor.
Researchers take advantage of this property of the bacteria and genetically modify the plasmid, so what it introduces to the plant is not tumor-developing genetic information, but other features such as resistance to pests or herbicides such as glyphosate.
Consejo Editorial: Fredy Chaparro Sanabria Director Unimedios, Nelly Mendivelso Rodríguez Oficina de Prensa, Liseth Sayago Cortes Oficina de Realización Audiovisual, Carlos Raigoso Camelo, Oficina de Producción Radiofónica, Ramiro Chacón Martinez Oficina de Proyectos Estratégicos.
Editora: Liliana Matos
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