Tons of foods are lost due to the droughts, which are the main threat against crops and the situation worsens considering that for 2050 the estimate population will be 9 thousand millions. In 2012, a research team led by Raquel Chan achieved international impact after carrying out the first transgenic technology fully developed in Argentina: HB4. For more than 15 years, her research team has studied how plants adapt to the environment without knowing that their study would cross borders.
Currently, in the case of wheat, its final release will depend on the decision of the Dirección Nacional de Mercados Agropecuarios and in the case of the soy HB4, the approval of China is expected to be commercialized.
It is worth mentioning that in 2004 CONICET and the UNL patented one genetic construction that included the Hahb-4 sunflower and licensed it to the Argentine company Bioceres forming a successful private-public alliance. For Raquel Chan, “the company has a know-how and another point of view because they are agronomists, businessmen and we are molecular biologists and researchers. They have the knowledge and expertise in management that we scientists do not.”
Apart from food shortage and consequences of climate change, there is another problem: the most important crops worldwide –soy, wheat, rice and corn- do not grow as the world population does. “It is necessary to develop technologies so as not to have wars for food”, Raquel Chan, senior researcher of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), and director of the Instituto Agrobiotecnológico del Litoral (IAL, CONICET-UNL) and full professor at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL).
HB4 technology as a landmark: national and international impact
With HB4, plants are more tolerant in droughts periods and have a better performance. This gene improves the adaptation capacity of plants under stress without affecting their productivity. “This does not mean that these plants can grow on deserts. As no living being can live without water, this technology allows them to tolerate for a longer period of time a lower water intake during their whole life cycle and a minor performance loss. That is to say, depending on the level of water deficit, a plant that does not have the technology either dies or has a poor performance”, Chan explains.
For this development, some conditions were combined: an ideal moment for public-private partnership, government support and commitment for this joint project from the company and the researchers.
“I hope we can develop technologies that transcend and mark a milestone. Argentina can produce its own technology so as to obtain more support for other CONICET institutes to transfer that technology.”
She adds: “Most laboratories in Argentina belong to the public sector and they do either one thing or the other, or they are molecular biologists or those who receive the technology from others and run the field tests. We are taking a giant step because we want to finish those stages to provide a company with a more finished product.”
In October 2015 it was possible to comply with all the regulatory requirements of the Ministerio de Agroindustria –which used to be the Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Pesca-. For the Comisión Nacional Asesora de Biotecnología Agropecuaria (CONABIA) the requirement was to be harmless to the environment. In the case of the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria (SENASA), the demanded to have a product free from toxic or allergen elements for humans and animals.
In the case of HB4 wheat, despite having achieved a favorable opinion from the CONABIA and the SENASA, its release depends on the Dirección Nacional de Mercados Agropecuarios, which analyses the commercial impact of being the first country in the world that releases this type of wheat. As regards HB4 soy, we are waiting for the approval of China because there is an international agreement that states that none transgenic soy can be sold from Argentina without the approval of China in our country as it is our main importer.
The origin of HB4 technology
“Our research study that started in the nineties was aimed at identifying the genes involved in activating a response in a plant before the different factors that stress them. We focus on abiotic stress, in which the drought is the most common, but it can also be salinity on the soil, the wind, the extreme temperature -low or high-,”Chan explains.
To observe the process that started with the study of how plants adapt to the environment and led to the HB4 technology, it is necessary to go back to the time when Chan and her team discovered a sunflower gene that provides tolerance to stress due to drought. They put it in one Arabidopsis thaliana plant which was used as a lab model and the results were good. CONICET and the UNL –through the IAL- formed a successful association with Bioceres. That is to say, each part made contributions and carried out a project to transform plants of soy, corn, alfalfa, wheat and other crops with Hahb-4 gene and test them so as to see if that gene made them tolerant to drought. To study their behavior in the greenhouse and then in the field took the scientists many years. Several researchers of different disciplines such as molecular biology, genetics, agronomy bioinformatics and others participated in the study. In 2012, the original technology was improved and the modified HB4 gene was patented.
“We chose the sunflower as a work model”, the molecular biologist states. That was how the researchers decided to study the transcription factors of this plant that is much more adapted to the environment than other agronomical species that are commonly used. It is a species that can be planted in different places as it has a great adaptation level.
In order to know the function of each gene, one of the strategies is to isolate that gene and put it in one plant that does not have it. “Through genetic techniques, we take out one particular gene of the 30 thousand a plant has and place it in one plant that does not have it. After that, we observe them and compare the behavior of the plant that has the new gene with the one that does not have it”, Chan states.
Other emerging techniques
With the same model scientists work at the laboratory and found some genes that in the model system provide beneficial features at an agronomic level: tolerance to floods, bigger biomass, tolerance to insects, and more seed production. “The floods also have devastating effects: the plants die due to droughts but also floods. We found at least some technologies that when they were introduced into the plants, they became tolerant to flood”, Chat affirms.
As regards this development, Chan stays that “once the basic study of the model system was conducted, we can transform the corn, soy and rice crops. Those technologies are being tested now to see if those crops work as well as in the model system.”
This type of technologies cannot be develop individually. At the IAL, most researchers and fellows teach at the UNL. “If we were in an isolated place, without students, it’d difficult to conduct these projects. Besides, the fellows are the driving force of the projects, they are young and have more energy”, Chan affirms and highlights the work of support staff.
“All this work could not be done without the support staff, I would like to highlight all the work made by Mabel Campi, who is in charge of all the crop’s transformations and Manuel Franco, who conducts the measurements of the performance components we have in the field with Jésica Raineri, postdoctoral fellow.”
Chan also mentioned the studies of the teams carried out by María Otegui, CONICET senior researcher at the el Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA) and Margarita Portapila at the Centro Internacional Franco Argentino de Ciencias de la Información y de Sistemas (CIFASIS, CONICET-UNR). The scientist also highlighted the work of the researchers and fellows of IAL who participated at the development of new technologies: Karina Ribichich, CONICET associate researcher; Julieta Cabello, CONICET assistant researcher; Elina Welchen, CONICET independent researcher; and Pablo Torti, doctoral fellow.