Tech Tuesday

A Warning About Nano-Materials

Nano-what? Group says regulators need to do more work, collaboration aims to beat soybean disease, and developing corn that likes a warmer climate.

Before the July 4th holiday, a press release cleared the in-box warning that a "lack of nanotechnology regulation" was a danger to human health and the environment. The word "nano" has become common in our tech-loving society today, and is short for nano-meter, referring to something that is one-billionth of a meter in size (the human hair is 80,000 nanometers in diameter). These days companies of all types are working in this super-small arena because the results can be pretty dramatic. But the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is issuing a warning.

The group has published a report Racing Ahead: U.S. Agri-Nanotechnology in the Absence of Regulation offering a warning about the unregulated use of Engineered Nanomaterials (ENM's). The size of these tools offers unique properties are they're already being deployed in the market. IATP is warning that this is an unregulated use of technology that needs attention. On June 9 this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration issued voluntary guidance on ENMs.

IATP warns of possible hazards of using materials for coating fruits and vegetables to preserve shelf life, and other uses. Noting that many have been deployed with little pre-market safety assessment and the group warns that this is a worry. Working at material sizes this small it's possible to deploy some pretty startling technologies, from tiny robots that can heal a sick person to materials that could improve stealth and defense technologies. IATP's warning, which is ag focused, calls for a regulatory framework for the technology.

The association points to the use of ENMs to make toxins more bio-available in crop protection products, targeting nutrients in smaller doses, or detecting bacteria in packaged foods. Right now a company can use its discretion to determine whether a substance already considered safe in its usual state, is also safe in nano-scale form. Do these new tools need regulation? It's an interesting question.

Beating Back Northern Stem Canker

Northern stem canker is re-emerging as a problem disease in soybeans and it turns out not only are farmers in the U.S. dealing with it, but the disease is a challenge in Argentina as well. Down there, the big yield stopper was southern stem canker, but that has been pretty much stopped using resistant soybean varieties.

Now northern stem canker is a problem for them as well, and there's no known genetic resistance to the disease. Thomas Chase, a plant pathologist at South Dakota State University, has been asked down to Argentina to speak about northern stem canker, a disease he sees in his state. And now he's working on building a collaborative effort with Argentine researchers to work on the disease.

Usually a corn-soybean rotation can keep northern stem canker in check, but Chase has observed that the incidence of the disease is rising. For Argentine producers, the disease is a growing problem now that they've beaten southern stem canker.

Chase's studies have documented a high degree of susceptibility to the disease in currently deployed varieties as well as severe outbreaks in soybean fields where soybeans have not appeared in recent years in the rotation. Meanwhile, in Argentina where a beans-following-beans rotation is common, the disease is on the rise too.

Perhaps this global collaboration can find a solution before northern stem canker runs out of control in the United States.

Raising Corn for a Hotter Climate

Farmers are focused on getting a crop in the ground and harvesting in the fall. Most don't think about changing weather - on a grand scale - and how that may impact the crops they grow. But the prospect of rising temperatures in the Midwest could lead to a dramatic decline in corn yield. Using a $5 million grant from USDA, Iowa State University researchers are aiming to developing a corn variety that maintains the region's high yields even as temperatures rise.

The study is part of the response within the scientific community to challenges issued by the National Research Council in their report, "New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Lead the Coming Revolution."

This report recommends how best to nationally capitalize on recent technological and scientific advances that have allowed biologists to integrate biological research findings, collect and interpret vastly increased amounts of data, and predict the behavior of complex systems.

As part of the USDA implementation of this report, Iowa State researchers are part of a multidisciplinary team addressing the challenge of generating food plants that grow sustainably in changing environments.

Research already shows that corn yield can fall by up to 25% when sustained temperatures rise, from 90 to 95 degrees during corn grain filling. Yield losses of up to 40% are projected in tropical and subtropical areas by the end of this century.

Working in three climate zones, the researchers will be able to test plants under differing conditions. They'll be looking at the entire corn genome to identify factors that could be responsible for the problem of lower yield. And they'll be testing a few target genes in corn they already suspect are likely to be important in the yield response to temperature.

We'll keep you posted on what they find out.

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