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Monsanto to face biopiracy charges in India

An Indian government agency has agreed to sue the developers of genetically modified (GM) eggplant for violating India’s Biological Diversity Act of 2002. India’s National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) is alleging that the developers of India’s first GM food crop—Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) partnered with St. Louis–based seed giant Monsanto and several local universities—used local varieties to develop the transgenic crop, but failed to gain the appropriate licenses for field trials. At the same time, activists in Europe are claiming that patents on conventionally bred plants, including a melon found in India, filed by biotech companies violate farmers’ rights to use naturally occurring breeds. Both these pending legal cases could set important precedents for biopiracy in India and Europe. In another development in early November, the Munich-based European Patent Office referred to its Enlarged Board of Appeals a case involving conventionally bred tomatoes, which will likely shape any future enforcement of the Monsanto-owned melon patent, says Christoph Then, spokesman for advocacy group No Patents on Seeds. “It is a signal that the European Patent Office has severe doubts about this kind of patent,” he says.

The continuing wrangle over the insect-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) variety of brinjal, as eggplant is known in India, was unexpected as in 2009 the vegetable’s commercial release was imminent. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India’s official regulatory agency for GM organisms, gave the go-ahead, but vociferous public opposition prompted then-minister of environment and forests Jairam Ramesh to introduce an indefinite moratorium in February 2010 (Nat. Biotechnol. 28, 296, 2010).

Now the Bt brinjal’s release will likely be further delayed as the NBA contends that, under India’s 2002 Biological Diversity Act, the developers should have sought their approval, too. This is the first time the NBA has prosecuted firms for violating the 2002 Biological Diversity Act. Past biopiracy cases in India involving turmeric, rice and neem preceded the 2002 act so were treated in international courts.

The NBA’s decision to initiate legal proceedings was prompted by a complaint filed in 2010 by the Bangalore-based Environment Support group (ESG). Bhargavi Rao, of ESG, says the GEAC considers only the biochemistry of a proposed biotech crop and not input from farmers. The biological diversity act, she says, obligates commercial developers of GM crops to negotiate with farmers for the intellectual rights to breeds and traits developed by indigenous farmers and their ancestors. In the Bt brinjal case, the biodiversity appraisal process “has been completely sidestepped,” Rao says. The Karnataka Biodiversity Board agrees. In May, it recommended that the NBA investigate ESG’s allegations that the University of Agricultural Sciences at Dharwad in Karnataka failed to obtain the necessary biodiversity approvals before conducting Bt brinjal trials. In June, the NBA agreed to press charges but as of early November it had not made any public charges. “We are hoping that even if they take time, they will do something that is legally right,” ESG’s Rao says. “This will set a precedent for the country and it has to be a good decision.”

Mahyco has denied charges that it incorporated the Bt gene into local brinjal varieties provided by the university in developing Bt brinjal without prior approval from NBA. In a statement to Nature Biotechnology, Mahyco head of public relations Suryakant Mishra wrote that, “We have neither received any research results from any public partners nor are a beneficiary of their materials in any way.” Mishra says the partners “have developed their materials with gene access provided by Mahyco in accordance with the regulations.” Mahyco did not reply to Nature Biotechnology’s request for comment on the case’s impact on its planned investment or research in India.

This news story first appeared in Nature Biotechnology: [html] [pdf]

Synthetic Stones Capture Carbon

While scrubbers in smokestacks at coal plants can pull out toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, scientists haven’t yet developed a cost-effective technology to remove carbon dioxide from industrial exhaust. Now European researchers have tinkered with the chemical composition of limestone to produce a material that absorbs almost twice as much CO2 as the natural mineral can (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es2034697).

Small-scale carbon-scrubbing operations currently rely on amine-based materials. But these materials lose some of their absorbency after repeated use. Dolomitic limestone, CaMg(CO3)2, is an alternative. As early as the 1970s, scientists noticed that when they heated it, the mineral could absorb CO2 from the mixture of gases emitted by coal power plants and later release it as a purified gas, ready to compress and store. It doesn’t absorb as much CO2 as amine-based materials, but it can survive more absorption-release cycles.

To improve on dolomitic limestone’s carbon-absorbing properties, Christoph Müller of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH), and his colleagues wanted to minimize the amount of magnesium in the material. Magnesium helps form microscopic pores in the mineral, which expose more surface area of the calcium component to CO2. But magnesium doesn’t react with CO2. With more of the element, the limestone becomes heavier and requires more heat to drive the calcium to react with CO2.

So Müller and his colleagues created a series of synthetic limestones by mixing different ratios of calcium and magnesium, precipitating the mineral with different bases, and using different crystallization times. They found that a calcium-to-magnesium ratio of about 7:3, precipitation with a nitrate base, and 14 days of crystallization produced the best-performing material.

Per gram of material, the material absorbed about 0.56 g of CO2, while natural dolomitic limestone absorbs 0.38 g CO2. The synthetic material also performed better after repeated cycles of absorption and release. After 15 such cycles, a gram of the synthetic limestone could still grab about 0.51 g of CO2, while the natural mineral could absorb only 0.26 g.

When the scientists studied the best-performing synthetic mineral’s crystal structure using a scanning electron microscope, they found that the magnesium and calcium atoms were mixed evenly throughout the crystal lattice, similar to dolomitic limestone’s structure. Meanwhile, in the poor-performing materials, the two elements formed separate mini-crystals. The team speculates that the precipitation technique and crystallization time allowed the material to form more pores despite the low amount of magnesium.

Carlos Abanades, a chemical engineer at the National Coal Institute in Oviedo, Spain, says that the material is promising and adds that the researchers next should test whether a scaled-up version of the material will cost less than existing amine technologies.

Edward J. Anthony, a chemical engineer at the University of Ottawa, calls the study “very intriguing work.” He says the next step will be to test whether the new material performs as well after even more cycles and in the hot conditions found in industrial settings. Müller says his team plans to test the material under those conditions.

First published by Chemical & Engineering News: [html] [pdf]

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Jaegihorn incident report

Messieurs Goldman and Davenport, in Switzerland for the McCombie nuptials, invited Ms Crockett and Mr Laursen to an attempt on the Jaegihorn, above Saas Grund in the Swiss Valais region. Goldman and Davenport charmed the hut mistress into providing extra victuals. With full bellies and a 4am start, Laursen led the team on a circular tour of a neighbouring moraine in a suspected effort to escape the climb.

When the fog cleared and the sun rose, however, the team identified the start of the Alpendurst route and commenced climbing activities culminating in a successful summit. From here the evidence grows patchier. The two rope teams lost sight of one another. Subsequent reports from CUMC Zurich stationmaster Kavanaugh place Goldman and Davenport on a dance floor at a castle outside Basel ca. 3am. Davenport failed to report to the post-climb debriefing in Dietikon while Goldman reported to Dietlikon instead. Kavanaugh relieved all parties of their duties in disgust.

See the original as it appeared in Cambridge Mountaineering: [pdf]

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Mantle Recycles Far Faster Than Thought

The magma that rises from the mantle, forming new islands, may blast more than it bubbles. Where those plumes of magma originate — at the core-mantle boundary or the mantle-crust boundary — and how fast they rise to the surface are still open questions among volcanologists. But now a new study of minerals from the volcano Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii suggests that some elements made a 2,900-kilometer-long journey from the core-mantle boundary to Earth’s surface in as little as half a million years — quadruple the speed found by previous studies.

Alexander Sobolev, a geochemist at Joseph Fourier University in France, and his colleagues examined hundreds of miniscule inclusions in tiny grains of olivine in basaltic lava erupted from Mauna Loa. By measuring the amount of rubidium, which decays into strontium at a predictable pace, and the amount of strontium in the samples, Sobolev and his team concluded that there was too much strontium, given previously assumed mantle recycling rates.

The rubidium-strontium ratio is “the opposite of what you’d expect” for rocks formed from subducting seafloor only, says geochemist Tim Elliott of Bristol University of England, who was not part of the research team. So the strontium is likely from seawater, instead: As oceanic crust is subducted into the mantle, it brings seawater with it. Researchers know how strontium levels have changed in seawater over the Earth’s history, so once Sobolev and colleagues decided to assume that their strontium came from seawater, the age of the samples could be extracted from tables showing the concentration of strontium in seawater of different ages.

The strontium concentrations indicated an age of between 650 million and 200 million years, they reported in Nature. Assuming that the samples must have risen from the core-mantle boundary, which is much deeper than the 600-kilometer mantle-crust boundary, the scientists calculated a crustal recycling rate of between 1 and 3 centimeters a year, four times faster than what other research has suggested.

“It’s provocative and it’s an important break-through if it turns out to be confirmed,” says Dominique Weis of the University of British Columbia in Canada. “What’s exciting is that it’s proof that something that was near the surface went into the mantle and was then brought back up,” Weis says, adding that she would like to see more evidence of the timing of the cycle.

Weis and Elliott both say they’d like further proof of the faster recycling rate through examples from elsewhere in Hawaii or from other volcanic islands. “Mauna Loa is special,” Weis says. Lead isotopes have also shown anomalies on that volcano. “What I think should be done is to do analysis of more lava from other volcanoes,” she adds. Indeed, Sobolev’s “model would predict it’s a common occurrence,” Elliott says, so it should be possible to test the model by collecting and analyzing more samples elsewhere.

See this news story as it appeared in EARTH Magazine: [pdf]

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