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Mutant plants can boost yields, resistance: IAEA conference
VIENNA, Aug 12 (AFP) Aug 12, 2008
Against a backdrop of global food and energy crises, the UN atomic watchdog opened a four-day conference here Tuesday on ways of using radiation to improve crop yields and resistance.

The International Symposium on Induced Mutations in Plants, hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), brings together some 600 plant scientists, researchers and breeders from around the world.

The 80-year old technique of induced mutation uses radiation to alter genetic material in crop plants to boost output and disease resistance.

Selective mutation can also help crops adapt to changing climates and conditions.

Some 3,000 mutant varieties from 170 plant species spread over 60 countries -- including cereals, pulses, oil, root and tuber crops -- are currently cataloged in a seed database jointly run by the IAEA and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Unlike bio-engineered genetic modification, induced mutation does not splice foreign genes into the plant, but rather reorganises its existing genetic material, the head of plant breeding and genetics at the IAEA, Pierre Lagoda, told journalists.

"Spontaneous mutations are the motor of evolution," he said.

But while, in nature, it could take millions of years for a favorable mutation to occur, "we're concentrating time and space for the breeder so he can do the job in his lifetime."

No residual radiation is left on the plant, according to Lagoda. And because the technique mimics nature, it has encountered less resistance than genetically modified organisms (GMOs), derided by critics as potentially dangerous "Frankenfoods".

At the symposium, IAEA Deputy Director General Werner Burkart cited some of the technique's success stories.

Mutant varieties of barley that thrive at altitudes of up to 5,000 metres in Peru had led to a 52-percent increase in yields between 1978 and 2002, he said.

In Kenya, a modified variety of wheat could withstand droughts; and in Vietnam a new strain of rice thrived in the saline region of the Mekong Delta.

Participants at the conference spoke of a growing awareness that the problems of climate change, food shortages, and the energy crisis were deeply intertwined.

Given increasing pressures on the planet's natural resources, mutation induction "is a non-hazardous and low-cost technology that has the ability to address current challenges in agriculture," Burkart said.

"It's about cutting through the Gordian Knot of food, feed and fuel," noted Lagoda.

Induced mutation in plants would not solve the global food crisis by itself, he said. "But it's another tool in the tool box, just like GMO."

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