Archive for Monday, April 10, 2006

Expo gives glimpse of what’s on biotech horizon

April 10, 2006

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— An insect's acute sense of smell enables it to sniff out succulent grapevines and in turn help vintners to produce tastier wines.

At least that's the hope of Australian scientists who've begun extracting odor-detecting genes from insects with the goal of turning them into electronic sensors to help grape growers improve their crops.

"We're cloning out and setting up assays for olfactory genes from insects," said Bruce T. Lee, director of food futures program for Australia's National Research Flagship.

Lee is among the thousands of foreign scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians who flocked to McCormick Place on Sunday for the opening of BIO2006, the major trade show for the world's $90 billion biotechnology industry. Participants will compare notes on new ways to manipulate nature, looking for partners, investors and customers from across the globe.

The meeting, which runs through Wednesday, also is drawing critics of genetically modified foods, and police expect protests similar to those that follow the BIO trade show wherever it goes. On Sunday, Chicago police outnumbered the dozen or so activists who chanted and screamed at biotech conference attendees outside the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Even though consumer resistance has proven a significant stumbling block in marketing genetically modified foods, the international race to discover new ways to enhance foods is moving forward at high speed.

The grape-sniffing project is just one example. Australian researchers say they are on track to harness insects' sense of smell to produce electronic sensors that grape growers could use in just six years.

According to Lee, the goal is to tell growers the best time to irrigate a specific crop and to help them identify the grapes that will produce high-quality wine.

Such biotechnology does not require any manipulation of grape genes in order to make better wine. Because of concerns of some consumers, Lee said, researchers are striving to keep such manipulation to a minimum.

By avoiding direct genetic manipulation of crops - the removal or changing of a crop's genes so that its behavior is changed - the industry won't face the regulatory hurdles that greatly extend the time lag from laboratory success to new products in the marketplace.

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