The Gist of Science Reporter: January 2016

The Gist of Science Reporter: January 2016

  • Ghost: Future Technology for 3-D Interactive Display (Free Available)
  • Geneticaly Modified Crops: Needs for Rational Evaluation (Free Available)
  • Biosafety and Regulation of GMOs (Only For The Subscribed Members)

Ghost: Future Technology for 3-D Interactive Display

A new and exciting technology may allow users to change the shape of displays with their hands revolutionizing the way humans interact with Smartphone’s, laptops, tablets, and computers. With this technology a user could pull objects and data out of the TV or tablet or computer screen and manipulate them in midair.

In 2013, a project called GHOST (Generic, Highly Organic Shape Changing Interfaces), funded by the European Union, was designed to allow a human to manipulate digital objects using computers and mobile devices as an interface. The GHOST program which involves four partners in the UK, Netherlands and Denmark is slated to end by December 2015 and has received funds totaling 1.93 million Euros from the European Union’s Future Technologies Program.

A user could handle objects and even data in a completely new way. For example, a surgeon could train on a virtual brain on the screen with full tactile experience before performing the actual surgery. Artists, designers, architects and engineers could use virtual clay to mould or re-mould objects and store these designs in the computer’s memory for later use and compilation into the final project.

GHOST researchers have tried to create deformable user interfaces that resemble pads and sponges that musicians could use to control timbre, speed and other parameters in electronically generated music.

An application called ‘Emerge’ allows data in bar charts to be pulled out ofthe screen by using the fingerprints. For example, if the bar charts shows the results of an election or pattern of rainfall in a place, if can then reordered, broken down column by column, or row by row, individually to produce a better display.

The researchers have been working on ‘morphees’, which are flexible mobile devices that use Lycra or alloy displays which can bend or stretch according to use. These displays have the ability to change shape automatically to from screens to shield the fingers when a pin code is entered or move the display to the twists and turns of a video game. The display also allows a user to enlarge the image by pulling it into the hand and after examining it, by zooming in, to reduce and it and consign in into a safe store like a virtual ‘pocket or case’ in the computer.

Geneticaly Modified Crops: Needs for Rational Evaluation

Since the beginning of crop domestication, people have felt the need for improving crop plants to increase productivity and enhance the quality of food grain to satisfy the human needs. Traditionally, various plant breeding methods were used by plant breeders for increasing crop production. These conventional plant breeding methods were very successful and helped to meet the demand of the growing population.

Another strategy for crop improvement is the transfer of one or more desired genes from sexually compatible or incompatible species or the selective modification of DNA sequences using recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. Crops developed using rDNA technologies are called genetically modified crops (GM crops) or transgenic crops.

The area under GM crops in the world is increasing every year and in 2014 it occupied 181.5 million hectares in the world. Around 18 million farmers from 28 countries are involved in cultivation of GM crops. In 2013, Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley were awarded the World Food Prize for developing a transgenic plant by transferring bacterial gene for the first time.

In India, the first GM crop Bt cotton was introduced in 2002 against the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera). Cotton bollworm is a major pest of cotton. For eradication of this pest, farmers have been using multiple sprayings of chemical pesticides. Bt cotton contains the cry gene obtained from Bacillus thuringinesis (Bt) bacteria which is an insecticidal protein. When the bollworm feeds on the Bt cotton plant, the cry protein, which is a protoxin. enters into the insect’s mid-gut and due to the alkaline pH of the midgut it gets cleaved by the gut protease to form delta-endotoxin, the endotoxin binds to mid-gut epithelial cells and forms pores in the cell membrane and ultimately kills the insect. This makes Bt cotton resistant to the bollworm.

The use of Bt cotton has resulted in reduction in application of chemical pesticides, thereby reducing the negative impact of pesticide residues on the environment and the farmer is thus able to save the money spent on pesticides. Within 12 years of its introduction in India, it has occupied nearly 90% of the total cotton growing area. India used to be an importer of cotton before 2002, but after commercialisation of Bt cotton, India became a leading exporter of cotton in the world.

Brinjal (Egg plant) is one of the main vegetables in India. The major problem in brinjal is the infestation by fruit and shoot borer (Leucinodes orbonalis).

For the control of brinjal fruit and shoot borer, farmers are using excess of pesticides which is harmful for the environment and human health. Maharashtra-based seed company Mahyco has developed Bt Brinjal that contains Cry1Ac gene from Bt bacteria, which renders the brinjal crop resistant to fruit and shoot borer. The GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) which permits the commercialization of GM crops in India approved Bt brinjal for commercialization in 2009.

However, soon after the approval several scientists, farmers and some Non Government Organizations (NGOs) raised certain questions about its biosafety which delayed its release. Therefore, in February 2010, the environment ministry issued a moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal in India. However, Bangladesh approved Bt Brinjal for seed production and initial commercialization on 30 October 2013. In the next coming years Bangladesh is planning to increase area under Bt brinjal.

In 1999, a paper was published in the Nature magazine which reported the detrimental effect of Bt maize on Monarch butterfly, which is an endangered species of butterfly found in North America. When the butterfly larvae were fed on milkweed leaves (Monarch butterfly larvae feed only on milkweed leaves) covered in Bt maize pollen, it failed to grow. This led to concerns that Bt crops could give rise to major environmental problems. Later, a different group of scientists analyzed the Bt pollen toxicity to monarch butterfly. They found that one of the events Bt176 which contains a pollen specific promoter had high level of cry protein expression (1.1-7.1 microgram per gm) leading to the toxic effects observed on the butterfly larvae. So, Bt176 event has now been removed from the market.

In 2011, a review was published on “Impact of GM crops on Biodiversity” (janet E. Carpenter, 2011, GM Crops, 2:1, 7-23). In this review, it was concluded that GM crops had reduced the impact of agriculture on biodiversity. Cultivation of insect-resistant GM crops reduces the application of insecticides and pesticides and thus prevents the killing of beneficial insect population. Similarly, herbicide-resistant crops result in less tillage and preservation of soil moisture.

Gene flow and cross pollination: Gene flow refers to the transfer of gene or genetic material from one plant species to other plant species. It is a natural process that may lead to evolution of new species. Gene flow can occur in two ways either from the crop to its wild relative or from crop to weed plant. Gene flow can result n contamination of wild relatives of crop plant which results in reduction of germplasm or transfer of novel trait into the weed plant.

Health Issues

The public concern about GM crops is the safety of GM food. Today, consumers are interested in knowing about the source of foods they consume. So, the question about the safety of GM food is obvious.

Before the release of any GM food, it is evaluated for various biosafety parameters and then only it can be released for human consumption. It has never happened in the past that such evaluation has taken place before the release of any crop for human consumption.

Another concern is about eating genes and DNA in food from GM sources. All foods contain genes and DNA that get digested and disposed off in the usual way. Humans have been consuming genes since evolution but there is no report that genes can enter human cells from food.

Therefore, to settle concerns about the safety of GM food several questions need to be answered, such as, how the safety of GM crops should be measured, what are the features that are to be tested, what kind of analysis is required, what are the parameters of biosafety that need to be tested, and so on.

GM technology holds promise to solve some of the basic problems related to agriculture. Therefore, a rational, scientific and evidence-based evaluation of this technology is essential.

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