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Dakotafest forum discusses research on genes, seeds

Biotechnology research could soon lead to breakthroughs such as drought-tolerant corn and BSE-resistant cattle, panelists said Thursday during a forum at the Dakotafest farm show near Mitchell.

Biotechnology research could soon lead to breakthroughs such as drought-tolerant corn and BSE-resistant cattle, panelists said Thursday during a forum at the Dakotafest farm show near Mitchell.

Eddie Sullivan, of the Sioux Falls-based biotech firm Hematech, said his company has had good results during the past four years in its effort to eradicate bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as BSE or mad cow disease.

The project is a spinoff from Hematech's main goal, which is producing human antibodies in cows and harvesting the antibodies from milk to fight human diseases. The antibodies would be especially useful in attacking bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Hematech began its BSE research after undertaking its antibodies research, partly because the company's success in selling its antibodies could depend on its ability to convince the public that the antibodies are safe from BSE. Sullivan said the two projects are a good example of the multiple advances that can tumble out of one area of work.

"It's an interesting field, because a lot of biotechnology has some side effects," Sullivan said.

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Hematech's work and the work of many other biotech firms capitalizes on advances in gene targeting, a method that allows researchers to alter, or "turn off," a particular gene. Panelist John Kirby, director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station for South Dakota State University, said ongoing efforts to map the arrangement of genes in plants and animals are fueling all kinds of biotech projects.

"That's the next generation of science," he said.

Kirby said research into drought-tolerant plants is based on the discovery of a drought-tolerant gene in rice. A scientist in Kansas, Kirby said, claims to have identified a similar gene in corn.

Kirby warned that even if the claim is true, it will probably take eight years to develop drought-tolerant corn seeds for use on the farm. A lot of work will have to be done, he said, to understand and react to the gene's impact on yields.

Biotech advances in general face further delays, Sullivan said, from government regulators. He said Hematech has invested eight years and "tens of millions of dollars" into its effort to harvest human antibodies from cattle, but the company does not expect to have a product on the market for another six years.

"Building a regulatory pathway takes longer sometimes than producing the science," Sullivan said.

Biotech researchers also face some negative ethical perceptions about their work, he added.

"Whenever we talk about any kind of manipulation of an animal or a plant, there are people who have ethical issues, and we have to address those," he said.

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That's one of the reasons biotech firms in South Dakota recently formed the South Dakota Biotech Association. The group's aim is to grow the biotech industry in the state and educate the public about biotechnology, which is most simply described as the use of living things to make new products.

Sullivan is on the association's board of directors. The third participant in Thursday's forum, Christopher Mateo of Rural Technologies Inc. in Brookings, also is a board member, as is Christine Hamilton, an ag producer from Kimball who moderated the forum.

Among the topics covered by Mateo was his research into feeding methods that could produce pork enriched with selenium, a known cancer fighter. Other topics discussed included SDSU's research into making ethanol from grasses, and its effort to produce biodigesters for feedlots that could reduce smells and convert manure into biogas for electricity production.

Hamilton said biotech advances already have had a significant impact on South Dakota. Research she did two years ago for the South Dakota Corn Growers Association found that biotech varieties increased the state's food production by 442 million pounds, improved farm income by $88 million and reduced pesticide use by 545,000 pounds.

"You can see that in South Dakota, biotechnology has been here and is very present in what we do," Hamilton said.

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