Opportunities

Biodiversity-rich countries can take advantage of their biological/genetic resources from wild-land diversity, locally adapted varieties and races and wild relatives of crops to increase yields. This can be performed by applying agricultural biotechnology tools, by implementing bioprospecting activities and by establishing partnerships with public- and private-sector institutions in industrial and developing countries, including the IARCs. Investments in infrastructure are much lower than in any other high-technology field, with the exception of software development.

Several countries and institutions are implementing bioprospecting agreements with the private and public sector, based on the opportunities and obligations offered by the Convention on Biological Diversity and on the new developments in biotechnology and molecular biology, which are rapidly generating new tools and bioproducts. Bioprospecting collaborations are occurring in both developing and industrial countries (Sittenfeld, 1996; Varley and Scott, 1998). In this process, the definition of policies on access to genetic resources by governments and nations, as part of well-planned bioprospecting frameworks, are of particular importance for the success of national programmes. These activities integrate the search for compounds, genes and other nature-derived products with the sustainable use of biological resources and their conservation, along with scientific and socio-economic development of source countries and local communities.

Agricultural biotechnology, specifically the search for new genes for plant improvement, offers advantages to biodiversity-rich countries, compared with pharmaceutical research. Infrastructure and capital equipment costs are higher for the pharmaceutical area than for agricultural research (Tamayo et al., 1997). The need for alternatives to production and protection of crops and livestock and the increasing capacity in biotechnology (e.g. differential gene expression techniques and genetic engineering) offer new opportunities for bioprospecting. Biotechnology can facilitate the transfer of several traits from wild biodiversity into cultivated crops. However, as with traditional plant breeding, there is a need to select the precise traits that consumers would reward in the market (Carter, 1996). Advances in biotechnology also provide choices of diversity beyond traditional use of ex situ collections in germ-plasm banks. It is important to incorporate in situ collections (in the form of wild biodiversity) into agricultural research. Together with this concept, the need to develop innovative systems to connect to agricultural practices, biodiversity conservation and intelligent use of biological resources becomes apparent (Sittenfeld and Lovejoy, 1996; Sittenfeld, 1998).

Many of the advances in agricultural biotechnology are developed in industrial countries, in close proximity to growing biotechnology companies, and therefore favour the agricultural practices of the industrial countries. This may pose a problem for the primarily agricultural economies of several countries in Latin America and other developing countries, because these developments may displace or transfer the production of these countries to the farm fields of the industrial countries, or even possibly to industrial bioreactors (Tamayo et al., 199 7). The concept of modern biodiversity prospecting, already proved in drug research (Sittenfeld and Villers, 1993, 1994), offers an alternative to this threat by transferring biotechnology to developing countries in exchange for access to their biological resources. This will enable developing countries to use their own biological resources while retaining a competitive edge with industrial countries. We can find examples of this practice in Mexico, Surinam, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica.

The Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) in Costa Rica is negotiating agreements with scientific research centres, universities and private enterprise that are mutually beneficial to all parties (Sittenfeld, 1998). These pioneering agreements provide significant returns for Costa Rica while simultaneously assigning an economic value to natural resources and providing a new source of income to support biotechnology and the maintenance and development of the country's conservation areas.

Linking biotechnology and biodiversity through modern bioprospecting requires the creation and implementation of adequate frameworks integrating favourable macropolicies, biodiversity inventories and information systems, technology access and business development (see Platais and Persley, 2001). The principle of bioprospecting may be simple, but the link between biotechnology, biodiversity conservation and its sustainable use requires several considerations, including: a realization that a wider range of skills are required for research, product development and approval; the creation, use and management of multidisciplinary teams dealing with the complexities of legal and regulatory frameworks for biotechnology and biodiversity conservation and use; and the use of advanced applications of biotechnology to broader arrays of bioresources. Finally, understanding the opportunities and problems derived from international collaborative research and the linkages with commercial organizations represents a key point for favourable bioprospecting activities (Sittenfeld et al., 1999).

Linking biodiversity and biotechnology

Agriculture has been one of the most important sectors for the economy of Costa Rica, promoting democracy, national values and political stability Agricultural expansion, however, has resulted in poor natural resource management, with low value-added prices for most of the crops (Mateo, 1996). The agricultural sector, although still contributing about 18% of the gross national product (GNP) and representing 70% of the total exports from 1970 to 1997 (Proyecto Estado de la NaciĆ³n, 1998), is currently undergoing changes caused by shifts and pressures of globalization and fluctuating export prices in coffee and banana. A few successful exceptions are niche export markets for non-traditional products, such as high value-added vegetables, fruits and ornamentals (Mateo, 1996). In 199 7, agricultural exports accounted for US$1.7 billion, although the size of the crop area diminished by 32%, from 179,034 ha in 1970 to 120,118 ha in 1997. The active population in the agricultural sector dropped from 25.3% in 1990 to 20.2% in 1997.

Rice Biotechnology Programme at the Centre for Research in Cellular and Molecular Biology (CIBCM), University of Costa Rica

Rice is the most important staple crop in Costa Rica, providing almost one-third of the daily caloric intake, with a per capita consumption of 55 kg year-1. Production is based on rain-fed and irrigated rice varieties developed several decades ago at the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (Cali, Colombia). Due to a narrow genetic background, however, all the varieties are susceptible to similar pests and diseases, such as planthoppers, rice hoja blanca virus (RHBV) and rice blast fungus Magnaporthe grisea, as well as physiological disorders, such as iron toxicity and zinc deficiency.

Because of a lack of resistance or tolerance to these factors, the use of pesticides and fungicides has increased costs, which reduces the profit margins and competitiveness of rice production in Costa Rica. Moreover, yield has remained fixed at 4.5 t ha-1, leading to a strong dependency on international markets. A strategy based on pesticide spraying is also leading to pollution of water and wildlife refuges. Weed control, especially of red rice, a complex of Oryza species, represents nearly one-third of production costs.

The Rice Biotechnology Programme has been supported by several institutions, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Costa Rican-United States Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA). It is centred on the use of biotechnology to make biodiversity available for crop improvement and to diminish or eliminate some constraints on rice production in Costa Rica. The strategy includes the molecular characterization of wild rice germ-plasm found in the country, which may harbour useful agronomic traits for future use in crop improvement. A second approach is bioprospecting for bacterial genes with insecticide activity isolated from different genera, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, Photorhabdus spp. and Xenorhabdus spp., in different ecosystems. Isolated genes might be incorporated into the rice genome through genetic engineering. The strategy also includes genetic characterization of M. grisea lineages, in both cultivated and wild rice species, to define sources of disease resistance.

Facilities were developed for plant genetic engineering at the CIBCM to offer a new tool for rice breeding programmes. The first attempt at genetic transformation of rice was focused on the development of commercial rice cul-tivars resistant to hoja blanca, using viral genes and modified versions of those genes, which upon expression in plants may induce tolerance or resistance to the disease. This project started in 1989, with the molecular characterization and sequencing of the RHBV, the development of plant tissue-culture protocols for regeneration of Costa Rican 'indica' rice varieties and epidemiological studies on transmission and dispersion of RHBV by its insect vector, the plant-hopper Tagosodes orizicolus, which is also a pest of rice. Transgenic plants were produced using the RHBV coat-protein gene, as well as modified versions of the gene.

The population of Costa Rica is increasing and cultivated land area is diminishing, so our ultimate goal is to increase yield per area through the use of biotechnology. In the long term we expect to have a pool of useful genes from wild rice relatives, bacteria or even non-related plants and to transfer them to commercial rice cultivars. Wild rice species have proved to be useful resources for enriching the genetic pool of cultivated rice. Interspecific crosses with Oryza rufipogon have increased yield up to 20%. Also, the Xa21 gene from Oryza longistaminata has been cloned and introduced into the rice genome, thus conferring the plants with resistance to Xanthomonas oryzae. Some of the characteristics that could potentially be used for the improvement of rice are: pests and pathogen resistance, higher protein content, plant vigour and tolerance to high metal concentrations, salinity and soil acidity.

The Rice Biotechnology Programme includes research to identify, map and characterize the native relatives of rice that occur in Costa Rica, which is conducted at CIBCM in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in the Philippines. The location of the plants was recorded with a geographical positioning system (GPS) and the distribution of wild rices was correlated with a series of ecological and geographical variables. The identification and characterization of the wild species were done by morphological methods and the genetic variability of these species is being studied using rice microsatellites and isozymes.

Populations of three of the four Oryza species reported for tropical America have been found in natural ecosystems throughout the country, accounting for three of the six described genome types of Oryza. Of these, Oryza latifolia is the most variable, abundant and widely distributed. Oryza grandiglumis and Oryza glumaepatula are reported for the first time for Costa

Rica. These two species have restricted distributions and need to be preserved, since they are not appropriately protected at the moment. Furthermore, two native populations of putative sterile hybrids that reproduce asexually have been found.

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