Category Archives: News

German breeders develop ‘open source’ plant seeds

There’s open-source software, open-source pharma research, and open-source beer. Now, there are open-source seeds, too. Breeders from Göttingen University in Germany and Dottenfelderhof agricultural school in Bad Vilbel, Germany, have released tomato and wheat varieties under an open-source license. Their move follows similar schemes for sharing plant material in India and the United States, but is the first that provides legal protection for the open-source status of future descendants of plant varieties.

The idea behind the open-source license is that scientists and breeders can experiment with seeds—and improve them—unimpeded by legal restrictions. The license “says that you can use the seed in multiple ways but you are not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on this seed and all the successive developments of this seed,” says agricultural scientist Johannes Kotschi, who helped write the license last year. Kotschi manages OpenSourceSeeds for the nonprofit Agrecol in Marburg, Germany, which announced the tomato and wheat licensing in Berlin in late April.

Since then, university, nonprofit, and organic breeders have expressed interest in issuing open-source licenses for their hop, potato, and tomato varieties, Kotschi says. Many have also requested the open-source tomato seeds, he adds. People have been breeding plants in search of desirable features, such as drought- and pest-resistance, for millennia. But until 1930, when the United States began applying patent law to plants, there was little a breeder could do to assert ownership over a new variety.

Since then, a flurry of protections, including patents and a special intellectual property system for crops called “plant variety protection,” has begun to block the way for researchers trying to breed new varieties, open-source advocates say. Developing the famous Golden Rice, for example, required so-called humanitarian exemptions to plant patents. As a result of mergers, plant intellectual property is in the hands of a shrinking number of companies.

International agreements on plant variety protection include a so-called breeder’s exception that allows for research—but breeders who use it to develop a new commercial variety have to pay royalties to the owner of the protected variety. And patents are even more restrictive, says Niels Louwaars, director of Plantum, a plant breeder’s association in Gouda, the Netherlands: “When one trait in a plant is patented, you are in principle not allowed under the research exemption to use such materials for further breeding,” he says.

The recent German licensing action circumvents those problems. Anyone can use the varieties, so long as they do not prevent others from conducting research on derivatives; all of the plant’s future descendants are also in a “commons.”

An allied U.S. group called the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) tried for several years to write a similar binding license but concluded in 2014 that it was too unwieldy to gain widespread acceptance among breeders and seed companies, says plant geneticist and OSSI Executive Director Claire Luby of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Because patents play a bigger role in plant intellectual property in the United States, breeders are more hemmed in than in Europe. Instead, OSSI now encourages supporters to make and follow a “pledge” to keep new varieties and derivatives open.

Organic seed company Fruition Seeds in Naples, New York, has taken a carrot population Luby and colleagues put into the commons and begun breeding it to create a sexually reproducing variety, Luby says. Luby has also sent out open-pledged carrot seeds to university researchers over the last couple years.

There’s a similar development in India, where agriculture scientist GV Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad has organized an open-source network that has bred and shared eight varieties of rice, wheat, and pulses. That may seem superfluous, because Indian law does not recognize patents on plants or plant traits at all. But a much-debated seed law pending since 2004 could change that. “We are trying to prepare for the future,” Ramanjaneyulu says. “Conditions should be much simpler and easier for sharing.”

But Louwaars cautions that a complete shift to an open-source system would harm innovation. Commercial breeders, the main producers of economically important new crop varieties, can’t use open-source seeds because they would not be able to claim royalties for any varieties they develop from them. If too many seeds were in the open source–only commons, they would be “killing the business model,” Louwaars says. Many universities would also lose out if they could no longer charge royalties for plant traits or breeding tools.

How much of an impact the various sharing systems have remains to be seen. For now, it’s best to experiment with them in different legal systems, Ramanjaneyulu says: “Let each nation decide, and let’s learn from each other.”

First published on Science’s ScienceInsider blog: [html] [pdf].

Taxonomy Goes Digital: Getting a Handle on Social Bots

Incoming messages for straight men on dating sites are… rare. Yet many of the dashing men who tried out Ashley Madison, a site aimed at the already-married, got messages soon after signing up. To see the messages, the men had to pay. The more perceptive among them soon noticed that their pen pals wrote similar come-ons, logged in and out at the same time every day, and oddest of all, had not visited the men’s profiles. Ashley Madison was using more than 70,000 bots to lure in users, Gizmodo found in a 2015 investigation.

The message-sending profiles were one iteration of a growing army of bots that populate our online social networks, affecting everything from our wallets to our politics. Now they are attracting academic study and government research dollars.

“For the first time, humans are beginning to share their social ecosystem with a new species,” says computer science graduate student Gregory Maus, of Indiana University. And because not everybody is as attentive as the Ashley Madison user who blew the whistle on the fembots, human users of social networks are susceptible to everything from outright scams to subtler political influence by bots promoting fake news. In response, two years ago the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenged researchers to identify “influence bots” and is now funding further research on social networks.

Maus will present one of a growing number of socialbot taxonomies at the ACM Web Science conference in Troy, New York, this June. The taxonomy seeks to expand on earlier taxonomies focused on identifying the different types of botnets and categorizing malicious socialbots that, for example, flood with spam a Twitter hashtag used to organize political protests. Another recent paper began mapping the existence of benign bots. Maus says he hopes his new taxonomy will be a more “broad, flexible framework useful for researchers” seeking both to understand and interact with bots.

“The interesting aspect of the current work is that it considers five different dimensions,” says computational social scientist Taha Yasseri of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, who earlier this year published a case study of an unexpected years-long conflict between Wikipedia maintenance-bots.

Maus’ paper sketches out categories based on the degree to which a bot tries to pretend to be human, who its owner is, how the bot interacts with other bots, whether it hides its connection to its owner, and its mission. Some of these have their own sub-categories. Yasseri adds that it would be useful to examine how the different types interact with each other, rather than just studying each type in isolation. The interaction of human and machine networks is the focus of Yasseri’s European Union-funded project, HUMANE.

In fact, that has been one of the features of the human approach to studying bot taxonomies: variety and interactivity. Researchers come from a wide range of backgrounds. Maus, whose undergraduate degree is in philosophy, worked in marketing before joining the Networks & agents Network group at IU. His colleagues there have a mixture of backgrounds in psychology, mathematics, physics, and computer science.

Maus says students or others interested in working on social network taxonomy can get an immediate start by studying the APIs of a social network and reaching out to other researchers working on these problems. His supervisor, Filippo Menczer, accepts potential students through any of three different Ph.D. tracks. The area of bot taxonomy is young enough—and complex enough—that the variety of human profiles almost matches that of the bots.

First published by IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].

Big Data vs. Bad Air

In mid-October 2016, officials from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection counted five illegal trash-burning sites and hundreds of thousands of vehicles exceeding emission standards in Beijing alone. For the first time since last winter’s pollution high season, city officials issued a yellow air-quality alert, which required shutting down power plants and reining in Beijing’s frenetic factories and road traffic. If this winter is anything like past winters, the city will have to pull out the yellow card again—and may even have to reach for its red card.

Read the rest of this news story in the January issue of IEEE Spectrum or the updated online version: [html] [pdf].

Europe’s New Satellite System Will Improve Your Phone

Galileo, a global navigation satellite system that will reach more places and work more precisely than today’s GPS services, is now available for free public use. When it is complete, expected by 2020, Galileo will have taken two decades and an estimated $10 billion to build. But the system, created by the European Union, will make your phone run better and offer new possibilities for both corporate and government users.
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