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GMOs: breaking barriers to benefit Brazilian agriculture

Transgenics is nothing more than an evolution of conventional breeding and genetic improvement, since it allows the transfer of traits of agronomic interest between different species. This means that this technology allows scientists to isolate genes from microorganisms, for example, and transfer them into plants, with the aim of making them more nutritious or more resistant to diseases, among other countless applications.

"Transgenic" is synonymous with "genetically modified", as in the expression Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). It is an organism that received a gene from another organism. Such change in its DNA allows it to show a trait it did not previously have. In nature, natural changes or mutations have always occurred.

Genes contain the information that define organisms' natural traits, such as a person's eye color or the scent of a flower. By receiving one or more genes from another organism, a plant can become more resistant to pests or more nutritious, for example.

There have been more than two decades since the development of the first genetically modified food product in the world - a longer lasting tomato created in California, United States. Twenty years later, the market for GMOs in agriculture is increasingly expressive.  For every 100 hectares planted with soybeans today in the planet, 80 are sown with seeds with modified genes. In the case of maize, they are 30 for every 100.

In these past two decades, the area with transgenic crops has risen 100 times, from 1.7 million hectares to 175.2 million. The United States lead the ranking, followed by Brazil and Argentina.

In Brazil, 40,3 million hectares were sown with GM soybean, maize and cotton seeds in 2013, a growth of 10% in comparison with the previous year. Today, out of the crops that are cultivated in the country with biotechnology, 92% of all soybeans, 90% of the maize and 47% of the cotton are genetically modified.

Environmental benefits

The use of genetic engineering techniques provides the main benefit of reducing the impacts of man on nature. Transgenic crops are not only safer for the environment, but also offer benefits in comparison with conventional ones with respect to the preservation of the planet.

That happens because the GM plants available in the market reduce the need to apply agrochemicals to fight pests. Thus, less water is spent to prepare agrochemicals and less fuels are used by tractors and machines used to apply such products in the croplands. Genetic engineering makes some crops more productive and, in a way, contribute to reducing the need to expand the plantation to new areas.

GMOs: agriculture's ally to face food challenges

The choices for GMO applications are countless and can cover the most diverse areas. In sustainable agriculture, for example, biotechnology allows one to produce more food, with quality, at lower costs and without the need to increase the crop area. Nowadays, GMOs have already been significantly contributing to support the increased demand for yield per hectare, which is the plantation area used by the farmer. As there are not many agricultural frontiers (new lands to farm) left, it is necessary to produce more in each planted hectare. But, besides the increase in productivity, biotechnology can bring other benefits such as more nutritious plants or with a healthier composition.

Biotechnology and biosafety: united to ensure the safety of the Brazilian consumer

One of the issues that concern Brazilian consumers the most is the safety of genetically modified products.

In this sense, it is important to stress that in 20 years of use in the whole world, people of about 50 countries have been consuming GM foods on a large scale, without record of negative impacts on the environment or on human and animal health. Before reaching the consumer, every GMO is exhaustingly analyzed through strict laboratory and field tests.

In addition, it is fundamental that all of society learns that Brazil has one of the most rigorous biosafety laws of the world. Biosafety encompasses a group of actions towards the prevention and minimization of risks that are inherent to research, production and technological development activities, aiming at human and animal health, environmental conservation, and the quality of the results.

Brazilian Law 11,105/05,which regulates the activities with GMOs and biotechnology activities in general, is among the strictest laws of the world. This legislation determines that, from initial discovery the stage of being a commercial product, a GMO has to go through many studies, which take approximately 10 years of research. Such studies aim at ensuring the food and environmental safety of the end product.

It is only after the product is analyzed and approved by the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio) that it will be allowed to go into the market. That is, GMO production is a legal and legitimate activity, ruled by specific legislation under rigid biosafety criteria.

CTNBio, under the Ministry of Science and Technology, involves specialists in several areas of scientific knowledge, who meet monthly to analyze all research proposals involving GMOs in all areas, and not just agriculture.

This group evaluates each genetically modified product, considering possible impacts to the environment, to human and animal health, and to agriculture. At the end of all the analyses, CTNBio issues a conclusive report, clearing or not clearing the product in question for trade.

More than 120 public and private institutions have already been accredited by the agency to develop research with genetically modified organisms. Embrapa is one of such entities.

Embrapa: over 30 years at the forefront of biotechnological research

Embrapa has developed studies on the genetic transformation of plants since the 1980s, with the purpose of contributing to a more productive and healthier agriculture, with the development of disease tolerant or resistant varieties, aiming at reducing the applications of agrochemicals in agricultural crops. This type of research is being developed with several agricultural species, like soybeans, beans, rice, maize, cotton, lettuce, potato, coffee, sugarcane and papaya, among others.

The genetic improvement of agricultural crops in Brazil is one of the most incisive results of research developed by Embrapa, and its impacts have rearranged agriculture in the country.

Such research improved as years went by, and today, in addition to meeting agricultural needs, it has to respond to the demands from current society, which is increasinggly more rigorous in terms of nutritional, environmental and health standards.

Biotechnology emerged in the 1980s at Embrapa as a tool that could accelerate the genetic improvement of agricultural crops.

Genetic engineering, or the ability to genetically transform plants through gene transfer, is nothing more than an evolution of genetic improvement techniques toward a more productive and healthier agriculture.

Embrapa's research in genetic engineering, especially from Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, which is one of the 46 Embrapa research units, focuses on the development of plants that are resistant and tolerant biotic (pests) and abiotic stresses. The goal is to reduce the application of agrochemicals, making diets and daily routines healthier.

Such research resulted in CTNBio's approval for commercial cultivation of two genetically modified products: herbicide-tolerant Cultivance® soybeans, in partnership with BASF, and golden mosaic virus resistant transgenic beans. Learn more about these products:

Transgenic beans:

The transgenic beans with resistance to the golden mosaic virus was approved by the National Technical Commission on Biosafety - CTNBio in 2011.

A result of more than 10 years of research, such beans represent a landmark for Brazilian science, as it was the first GM variety developed exclusively by public research institutions. Moreover, it is a concrete example of the social and dietary impact of genetic engineering, as in Brazil beans are mostly produced by smallholders, with about 80% of the production and the cultivated area in properties with less than 100 hectares.

Cultivance® soybeans:

The transgenic soybeans that are tolerant to imidazolinone herbicides, named Cultivance®, were developed in partnership between Embrapa and Basf, and were launched in the Brazilian market in the 2013 crop year. This was the first genetically modified plant entirely generated in Brazil and marked the beginning of a new era for biotechnology in the country, with a more sustainability-focused aim. The goal is to facilitate Brazilian farmers' access to advanced technological alternatives, with economic gains and greater efficiency in the responsibility to maintain natural resources.

The aim of the two companies is to extend the benefits of the Cultivance® Production System, duly adjusted to local needs, to other countries in Latin America, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay, and to other 20 countries, including China.

It is estimated that the Cultivance® soybeans can occupy of 15 to 20% of the market for GMOs in Brazil.

Other research in development at Embrapa

The beans and soybeans are examples of products of genetic engineering techniques that have already been cleared for commercial cultivation in Brazil.

However, there are other genetically modified products at development stages in the laboratories of Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology. The research developed by the Unit in this field seek sustainable solutions for the agricultural and food challenges of the current and future generations, such as: resistance to pests and diseases, tolerance to climate stresses, among many other traits of agronomic interest.

Check some of the ongoing research at Embrapa:

Borer resistant coffee
Coffee is a product consumed daily by about 40% of the world population, and it annually moves US$ 70 billion, which makes it the second greatest natural commodity, only behind oil. Brazil is the top world producer, responsible for 34% of the coffee that is traded.

Pest attacks are some of the worst problems faced by coffee growers, one of the most harmful of which is the coffee borer beetle (Hypothenemus hampei), capable of causing annual losses of about US$ 500 million.

With the aim of controlling of the pest, Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology developed genetically modified (GM) Coffea arabica plants containing a protein that grants them resistance to the coffee borer beetle. This protein interferes with the insect's digestive enzyme activity, thus hindering it from feeding from the berry.

The plants are at a regulatory study stage (molecular characterization, food and environmental safety). Their widespread use by Brazilian farmers will bring advantages, such as the reduced production costs and reduced environmental pollution caused by the use of insecticides.

Weevil-resistant cotton
One of the worst problems cotton growers in Brazil face is a pest known as boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis). To give an idea of the scale of the problem, the cost of controling the pest can reach 25% of the production cost.

Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology has invested in the development of GM cotton plants with resistance to the boll weevil.

Several strategies have been used to control this pest, such as: the expression of Cry proteins in Bacillus thurigiensis bacteria that are specific to the insect; silencing genes that are essential to the development of the insect using the RNA interferente technique, and the expression of inhibitors of the insect's digestive enzymes.

Weevil-resistant GM cotton plants are being assessed in greenhouses and submitted to molecular characterization.

Another cotton research front, in partnership with BASF, is the development of drought-tolerant plants.

Sugarcane
Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology has invested in the development of sugarcane plants that are resistant to the banana stem borer (Telchin licus licus), the worst pest in the Northeastern region of Brazil, where it causes annual losses of about R$ 34 million.

To control the insect, two strategies are being used: the first one uses genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis that are highly specific against the sugarcane giant borer, and the second one aims at silencing genes that are vital to the insect through RNA interference techniques.

Another focus of the research on sugarcane is the development of plants with tolerance to droughts. The research will bring advantages to growers, to society and to the environment, since farmers will use less water in the development of the plantation, thus reducing costs. Moreover, degraded areas with low precipitation indexes will be able to produce sugarcane. There, there will be an increase in productivity without the need to expand the crop area.

Biofortified lettuce:
Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology has been conducting research to increase the content of folic acid, or vitamin B9, in lettuce plants. The research, coordinated by the researcher Francisco Aragão, started in 2006 with the goal of developing genetically modified lettuce plants with higher folic acid content.

Lettuce already produces this vitamin, but in small amounts. What Embrapa did was to increase the production of molecules that originate folic acid with the introduction of genes from Arabidopsis thaliana, which is a model plant that is widely used in plant biotechnology. The studies resulted in plant lineages with up to 15 times more folic acid.

The field tests for the agronomic assessment of the GM plants, authorized by the National Technical Biosafety Commission - CTNBio, were held in December 2013 at Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology and the results proved to be very satisfactory.

One of the advantages is that lettuce is a vegetable that is part of the Brazilian population's diet and can be ingested raw, which is better for the absorption of vitamins. The plants Embrapa modified are of a crispy lettuce type, which is preferred by the population in Distrito Federal. But the research can be extended to other varieties.

The plants were tested with rats to assess mammals' capacity to absorb folic acid and the results were very good. During the first week when the animals received genetically modified lettuce leaves, they experienced significant growth in the vitamin content found in their blood.

All of these studies comprise the so-called second-generation GMOs, that is, studies that prioritize the identification and the enhancement of genes that increase the nutritional value of foods, enriching them with vitamins or propagating them to be less harmful to human health.

Third generation of GMOs: Biological factories for input production
In parallel with second-generation GMOs, Embrapa has already made efforts in research characterized as third generation. At this stage, studies are aimed at the production of plants that work as vaccines and medicines, among other applications.

Scientists from Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology are committed to the development of a new technological platform to express molecules of high added value: the use of genetically modified plants, animals and microorganisms as biofactories to produce inputs such as medicine or staple fibers of interest to the industry, among others.

The technology of biofactories adds further value to Brazilian agribusiness, since they provide for value aggregation to agricultural products such as plants, animals and microorganisms.  The prospect is that the scenario in Brazil in 10 years will be completely influenced by biogenetics.  Biofactories represent economical and safe means for the large scale production of inputs.

Genes from spiders can benefit sectors of the industry

Such knowledge is being used today at Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology for the generation of thread produced by spiders from Brazilian biodiversity in laboratory. 

The study of the genome of spiders collected in three different biomes (Atlantic Rainforest, Amazon Rainforest and Cerrados) has shown scientists that spiderweb fiber is one of the most flexible and resistant ones found in nature. 

Hence they moved on to the identification and isolation of genes from such spiders with the goal of developing new biopolymers, by cloning genes associated with the production of the web, and were able to synthetically produce spiderwebs in laboratory. The research aims at serving the interests of some sectors of the industry, combining resistance and flexibility.

Currently, scientists are using nanotechnology to zoom in on the details of each thread in up to a billion times. This allows one to differentiate, for example, the more elastic fibers from the more resistant ones, among other applications.

In addition to resulting in countless applications and benefits for the development of several sectors of the Brazilian economy, the fact the studies are based on Brazilian spiders adds value to the national biodiversity.

According to the researcher Elíbio Rech, the technology to produce spider silk thread in laboratory has already been mastered, the next step is to define fast, safe economic means for their production on a large scale.

One of the pathways for that is the use of genetically modified plants, microorganismos and animals as biofactories to produce not only such silk, but also medicine and other inputs that are essential for the Brazilian population. The aim is to make them safe and affordable for consumers.

Biopharmaceuticals: Research joins agribusiness and pharmaceutical sector

Biopharmaceuticals, or biological medical drugs, are obtained from biological sources or processes, based on the industrial use of genetically modified microorganisms or cells. Such biotechnological processes are part of health-aimed biotechnology, which also includes diagnoses, cell and stem cell therapies, gene therapies and vaccines, among others.

The revenue from biotechnology in the pharmaceutical industry worldwide has grown a lot in the last few decades and it has currently reached approximately 10 billion dollars a year.  Biotechnological products are in frank development and today they represent about 10% of the new products currently available in the market.

By investing in research with biopharmaceuticals, Embrapa expects to have such drugs reach the pharmaceutical market with lower costs, since they are produced directly in plants, bacteria or milk.  There is evidence that the use of biofactories can reduce the costs of producing recombinant protein by up to 50 times.

Plants thus produce genetically modified proteins that are identical to the originals, with little investment of capital, and resulting in safe products for the consumer.  Moreover, they represent cheaper means for medicine production on a large scale, and since they are not subject to contamination, they prevent expenses with the purification of organisms that are potential causes of diseases in human beings.  Not to mention easier storage and transportation.

Such research is conducted in partnership with other Embrapa units, research institutions and universities in Brazil and abroad.

The use of plants and animals as biofactories is a technological platform that will allow the expression of many molecules of high added value. 

Besides constituting an important instrument for the production of pharmaceuticals that could be used in the prevention and cure of countless diseases, this technology will also contribute to the study of molecules deriving from Brazilian biodiversity. 

Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology has systematically collected genes from Brazilian biodiversity and many of these genes have potential for use in areas of agriculture and health due to medicinal properties, for instance. Technology will allow the discovery of the functions of such genes faster and more efficiently.

The technology of biofactories adds further value to Brazilian agribusiness, since they provide for value aggregation to plants, animals and microorganisms.

Moreover, it favors integration between the agricultural market and the pharmaceutical sector. The Brazilian population is the one that will most benefit from that, since it will be able to count on more economic and healthier products.

Advantages

  • They produce genetically modified proteins that are identical to the originals, with little investment of capital, and resulting in safe products for the consumer;
  • Easiness of storage and transportation;
  • Cheaper medicine and large scale production;
  • It helps in the study of functions of molecules deriving from Brazilian biodiversity;
  • Higher added value to agricultural products;
  • Facilitated integration between agribusiness and the pharmaceutical sector.

Research in development at Embrapa

  • GM soybean plants capable of producing factor IX, a protein responsible for blood coagulation. Hemophilic patients do not produce this protein and need it to improve their quality of life;
  • Soybean with genes that stimulate the growth hormone;
  • GM plants to fight AIDS - the research is still at testing stages and is based on the introduction of cyanovirin (protein present in seaweed) in soybean, maize and tobacco plants for large scale production. This protein is capable of hindering the multiplication of the virus in the human body.

Studies are being developed in partnership with the United States National Institute of Health, University of London (UK), Embrapa, and a South African group. The intention is to produce a gel (with germicidal properties) so that women could apply it to their vaginas before sexual intercourse.
The genetically modified plants offer many advantages for cyanovirin production that can be scaled up to the quantities desired. In addition, there is the benefit of the low cost of the investment required.

Soybean, maize and tobacco seeds are biofactory candidates, but scientists are still evaluating which of the three produce the highest protein content at lower costs.