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Agricultural Applications of Biotechnology and the Potential for Biodiversity Valorization in Latin America and the Caribbean
Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), Lima, Peru
This article provides a brief account of key developments in agricultural applications of biotechnology in Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries; it also focuses on the potential of developing value-added products from the biological diversity harbored in the region. Most agricultural biotechnologies involve tissue culture and DNA-based markers for germplasm conservation, production of disease-free planting material, and assistance to genetic improvement. More recently, LAC countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and Uruguay have commercially grown transgenic crops. Advanced biotechnologies, such as genetic sequencing and microarray genomics, are differentially utilized in some LAC countries, with Brazil being at the forefront, for characterization, mapping, and trait screening for important crops and pathogens. There is great potential for the integration of these technologies with chemical analyses in bioprospecting biodiversity. Implementation of effective regulatory frameworks for access, genetic resource benefit sharing, and biosafety need urgent attention in most countries.
Key words: biodiversity, biotechnology, Latin American and Caribbean, sustainable utilization, valorization.

The Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region harbors major centers of origin and diversity for a number of organisms that support current world food production and industry. Agriculture and biodiversity are closely linked to biotechnology; the sustainability of protected biodiversity areas depends to a large extent on what transpires in intervened adjacent areas. Sound agricultural intensification can prevent further deterioration of protected landscapes. In traditional agricultural areas, modern biotechnology offers an opportunity not only to increase productivity and significantly reduce the use of off-farm chemical inputs, but also to enhance natural agro-biological systems.

Biotechnology has now become a preferred tool for adding value to biodiversity by allowing more effective identification and utilization of genes and derived products. Recent advances in genomic, proteomic and metabolomic research offer unprecedented opportunities for the search, identification, and commercial utilization of biological products and molecules in the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, agricultural, and environmental sectors. This is crucial in a region where the agro-industry sector contributes 25% to the internal gross product (IGP), where the population is forecasted to reach 663 million (about one tenth of the world total) by 2020 (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2003), and where there is also a growing demand for food quantity and quality, for preventive control of human diseases, for mitigation of environmental degradation, and for increasing income by tackling new markets competitively.

Some studies on the status of plant biotechnology in the LAC region have been carried out (Table 1). The work of Roca, Amezquita, and Villalobos (1986), which included 23 countries and 82 groups, showed that the majority were involved in tissue culture research, with a smaller proportion (20%) initiating DNA-based applications, including molecular markers and genetic engineering. Ten years later, the Technical Cooperation Network on Plant Biotechnology for Latin America and the Caribbean (REDBIO) carried out another study of 15 countries, including 152 laboratories; an increased attention to plant genetic engineering and other DNA-based applications were highlighted in this study (Izquierdo, Ciampi, & De Garcia, 1995). More recently, Trigo (2000) described the institutional and human-resource capacities among 292 groups in 13 countries, and Dellacha et al. (2003) described the status of the biotechnological industry in LAC, including 430 firms, mostly in the agro-industrial area. These studies showed that the most advanced groups were in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina, with important highlights found in Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica. A striking observation was that existing groups still need to take full advantage of strategic alliances for acquiring and sharing resources, knowledge, and products.

Following a brief account on the current status of agrobiotechnology, this paper draws attention to the use of biotechnology for the valorization of biological diversity—a promising potential of LAC countries for agro-industrial, health, and environmental development.

Table 1. Some characteristics of Latin American and Caribbean plant biotechnology research: summary of three studies.
Variables studied 1986 1999 2002a
Number of groups 82 292 86
Number of countries 23 13 10
Biotechnologies utilized:
Cell & tissue culture 88% 29%
Molecular markers 20% 27%
Disease diagnosis 18% 20%
Genetic engineering 3% 14%
Microbial-based techniquesb 10% 15%
Human resources assigned:c
Postgraduate (total) 37% 42% 51%
PhD 20% 23% 28%
MSc 20% 19% 23%
Undergraduate 32% 41% 49%
Groups of plants investigated:
Root and tuber crops 14% 7%
Fruit crops 9% 19%
Industrial crops 10% 10%
Pulses 9%
Cereals 8% 8%
Vegetables 5% 9%
Woody species and ornamentals 9% 8%
Investment in research and development:
Public sector 60% 26% 62%
Universities (public and private) 20% 44% 9%
Private sector 20% 20% 28%
Major issues identified requiring attention:
Strategic alliances X X X
Access to new technologies X
Private sector investment X X
Advanced training X X
Development of national biotech programs X
Biosafety and IPR regulations X
Public perception X X
a The 2001 study focused on industrial biotechnology only.
b Biopesticides, biofertilizers, and fermentation processes.
c Only professionals.

Table 2. Genetically engineered crop plants grown in Latin American and Caribbean countries, 2003.
Country Million ha Crops and traits Stage of development
Argentina 13.9 Glyphosate-tolerant soybean, Bt maize, ammonium glufosinate-tolerant maize, Bt cotton, herbicide-tolerant canola, herbicide-tolerant sugarbeet Commercialization, field trials
Belize Herbicide-tolerant soybean Field trials
Bolivia Herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant cotton and soybean Field trials
Brazil 3 Herbicide-tolerant corn, insect-resistant cotton, PVX-resistant potato, herbicide-tolerant rice, insect-resistant tobacco, glyphosate herbicide-tolerant soybean, herbicide-tolerant sugarcane, PRSV-resistant papaya, low lignine content eucalyptus, Golden mosaic virus-resistant beans, controlled-ripening coffee Field trials, research, commercialization
Chile Bt maize, herbicide-tolerant soybean, canola quality characteristics, herbicide-tolerant and virus-resistant sugar beet, tomato quality characteristics Field trials, commercialization
Colombia <0.05 Bt cotton, carnations, virus-resistant rice, insect-resistant cassava, cotton Field trials, commercialization
Costa Rica Herbicide-tolerant soybean, banana quality characteristics, virus-resistant corn Field trials
Cuba Fungus-resistant and virus (PVX, PVY and PLRV)-resistant potato, virus-resistant papaya, insect-resistant sweetpotato, insect-resistant sugarcane Field trials
Honduras <0.05 Bt maize Field trials, commercialization
Mexico <0.05 Glyphosate-tolerant soybean, PLRV-resistant potato, aluminium-tolerant maize and wheat, Bt cotton Commercialization, field trials
Puerto Rico Herbicide-tolerant soybean Field trials
Uruguay >0.05 Glyphosate-tolerant soybean, maize Commercialization

Agrobiotechnology in the LAC Region: Status Summary

Applications to Genetic Resources Conservation

Early attention given to tissue culture research (Table 1) allowed the establishment of in-vitro germplasm banks for several important crop plants in the LAC countries. Cryoconservation was developed to some extent for potato and cassava by the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, respectively, and for coffee somatic embryos by the Tropical Agronomic Research and Teaching Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica.

Genetic diversity analysis, using molecular markers, has improved the characterization and conservation of economically important crop germplasm, and recently has been extended to promising Amazonian and Andean species. Today, advanced biotechnologies (such as DNA microarrays) are beginning to impact genetic resource assessment and utilization research; however, because of the high investment and expertise required, these developments are limited to certain groups. They are currently being applied mainly in Brazil ("Brazil a new mecca for genomics?", 2002), but Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile (Ramirez et al., 2002), and Colombia are also developing genome research. Andean root and tuber crop biodiversity studies are underway in Peru (Table 3).

Table 3. Genomic initiatives in Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Institution Country Organism Project Biotechnologies
EMBRAPA-CENARGEN (Genetic resources and biotechnology) Brazil   Anotação Funcional Computacional de Proteínas DNA microarrays, proteomics, genome comparison, computational genomics, phylogenetics profile
University of Campinas Genomics and Expression Laboratory (LGE), Rede Bahia Brazil Crinipellis perniciosa (pathognic fungus in Theobroma) "Vassoura de Bruxa" Genome Project Cosmid libraries, shotgun sequencing, bioinformatics
University of Campinas LGE Brazil Eucalyptus Genolyptus  
University of Campinas LGE Brazil Hansenula polymorpha Hansenula polymorpha Genome Program DNA microarrays
Organization for Nucleotide Sequencing and Analysis (ONSA), Sao Paulo State Science Foundation (FAPESP), University of Campinas LGE Brazil Xylella fastidiosa of grapevine, Leifsonia, Eucalyptus Agronomical & Environmental Genomes  
ONSA, FAPESP, University of Campinas Brazil Sugarcane Sugarcane EST Genome Project (SUCEST) cDNA libraries, ESTs, DNA sequencing, data mining, bioinformatics, databases
ONSA, FAPESP Brazil Xilella fastidiosa (citric pathogen) Xilella fastidiosa Genome Project Cosmid libraries, shotgun sequencing, physical mapping, bioinformatics, functional genomics
ONSA, FAPESP Brazil Xanthomonas citri, Xanthomonas species Xanthomonas citri Genome Project Cosmid libraries, sequencing, proteomics, bioinformatics, genome comparison, phylogeny
Programa de Implantação da Rede Genoma do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (RioGene) Brazil Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus (nitrogen-fixing bacteria) Genome sequencing Shotgun sequencing
Genomics Sequencing Program of Parana (GENOPAR) Brazil Herbaspirillum seropedicae (nitrogen-fixing bacteria) Genome sequencing  
Biotechnology Institute, UNAM Mexico wheat, maize, rice Osmotic stress ressistance, transgenics DNA microarrays, genomics, CDNA libraries, BACS libraries
UNAM/Nitrogen Fixation Center Program of Computational Genomics Mexico Rhizobium etli Bioinformatics of the Genome project of Rhizobium etli Transcriptomics, proteomics, genomics, bioinformatics
National Center of Scientific research (CNIC) Cuba Sugarcane, maize, rice Production of early-maturing sugarcane Expression libraries, genomics, functional genomics
Project Genome Chile Chile Peach Functional genomics in nectarines ESTs sequences, functional genomics, macroarrays, proteomics (2-D gels)
Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria Chile Grapevine Functional genomics in grapevine ESTs sequences, functional genomics, transcriptomes
United Nations University Venezuela Latin American Genome Biology Network Genomics, bioinformatics

Applications to Plant Health and Propagation

Monoclonal antibodies, recombinant antigens, and molecular plant disease tests have greatly improved diagnostic systems and pathogen characterization. The most widely used technique for generating pathogen/virus free plants in the region involved the combination of thermotherapy and meristem tip culture. This tissue-culture-based application is still actively being used in most seed-production programs of the region. The CIP and CIAT pioneered the development of these techniques for generating and distributing healthy plant stocks of vegetatively propagated crops (e.g., potato, sweetpotato, and cassava). National programs and private groups of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru have developed and commercialized these technologies, to variable extent, for the production of healthy seed.

Tissue-culture-based propagation techniques have been used in the region over many years (Table 1) for the multiplication of planting material of many economically important crop plants, such as roots and tubers, flowers, fruit trees, and others. These propagation techniques are now being standardized for a range of native plants of commercial value, such as forests and ornamentals.

Bioreactors and temporary immersion systems are now available for industrial plant multiplication; however, development of this technology is still incipient in the region. Important applications have been demonstrated for coffee somatic embryo multiplication at CATIE, for cassava multiplication, rice anther culture, and regeneration of genetically transformed cassava at CIAT, and for the regeneration and multiplication of potato clones at CIP (Tables 4 & 5).

Table 4. Genetic resources under study at international and regional agricultural research institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Institution Genetic resources (# accessions)
International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
Arachis spp. (250), tropical forages (60), wild Manihot spp.(40), M. esculenta (5,541), Oryza sativa (260), wild Phaseolus spp.(69), P. vulgaris (27,458)
Hordeum vulgare (3), Secale cereale (54), Triticum aestivum ssp. aestivum (63,290), T. turgidum (50), Zea mays (17,807), Z. perennis (162)
Arracacia (33), Canna indica (21), wild Ipomoea spp. (939), I. batatas (4,143), wild Lepidium spp. (5), L. meyenii (31), wild Oxalis spp. (3), O. tuberosa (238), Smallanthus sonchifolius (28), wild Solanum spp. (1,354), S. ajanhuiri (11), S. chaucha (95), S. curtilobum (13), S. juzepczukii (26), S. phureja (136), S. stenotomum ssp. goniocalyx (46), S. stenotomum ssp. stenotomum (284), S. tuberosum ssp. andigena (2,567), S. tuberosum ssp. tuberosum (938), S. tuberosum x andigena (21), Tropaeolum tuberosum ssp. tuberosum (22), wild Ullucus spp. (2), U. tuberosus (255)
CATIE Annanas comosus (6), wild Annona spp. (10), A. muricata (50), wild Bactris spp. (2), B. gasipaes (646), wild Bambusa spp. (4), Bixa orellana (132), wild Capsicum spp. (829), C. annuum (274), C. baccatum (47), C. chinense (124), C. frutescens (229), C. pubescens (27), Chrysophyllum cainito(26), Cocos nucifera (2), wild Coffea spp. (14),C. arabica (1,623), C. canephora (56), C. liberica (15), wild Cucurbita spp. (392), C. moschata (1,546), C. pepo (201), Dioscorea spp. (73), wild Lycopersicon sp. (127), L. pimpinellifolium (20), Manihot esculenta (169), Mauritia flexuosa (2), Musa spp. (48), Pachyrrhizus tuberosus (28), wild Phaseolus spp. (100), P. vulgaris (895), P. lunatus (47), P. dumosus (31), Solanum qiutoense (14), other Solanum spp. (55), Theobroma cacao (687), Vigna spp. (149), Zea mays (402)

Table 5. Biotechnologies utilized at international and regional agricultural research institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Biotechnologies utilized CIAT CIMMYT CIP CATIE
Temporal immersion system X   X X
Cryoconservation X   X X
Somatic embriogenesis X   X X
Apomixis   X    
Genetic transformation X X X X
Genetic engineering X X X X
Isoenzyme markers X      
QTLs (quantitative trait loci) X X X  
MAS (marker-assisted selection) X      
cDNA libraries X   X  
ESTs (expressed sequence tags) X X X  
DNA microarrays X X    
Structural genomics   X X  
Functional genomics   X X  
Transcriptomics   X    
PQLs (protein quantity loci)   X    
Proteomics   X    
GIS X   X  
Bioinformatics X X X X
Monoclonal and policlonal antibodies     X  
Biopesticides     X  

Genetic Improvement Applications

For many LAC biotechnology groups, anther culture for haploid plant production and embryo rescue for hybrid plant production have been connected to crop improvement programs, such as those in Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil for rice and grain legumes. Molecular marker-assisted selection has improved plant breeding through the use of tightly linked markers in assisted selection. Practical examples exist in the region for maize and wheat at CIMMYT; cassava, rice, and common bean at CIAT; potato and sweetpotato at CIP; and in the national programs of Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica (Tables 4 & 5).

The LAC region has conducted 27% of the world's field trials of 24 transgenic crops (James, 2003). Argentina alone represents 21% and is second in the world in growing transgenic crops commercially; this has represented $200 million of profits to Argentina in 2000. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and Uruguay commercialize genetically engineered (GE) crops. Brazil officially approved GE crops for planting in 2003 and has already become the fourth in the world in growing GE crops. Colombia approved 10,000 hectares of commercial Bt cotton and carnations for export. Bolivia has carried out field trials for GE cotton and soybeans, and Honduras is growing GE maize for the first time (James, 2003; Table 2). In Mexico, the Savia firm has performed within the ten top worldwide (Solleiro & Castañon, 1999). Because the global market for transgenic crops is projected to reach $25 billion in 2010, this application area has generated large expectations in LAC countries. Biosafety and IPR regulations still have to be enforced in many countries for an effective and safe use of genetically engineered crops, especially if their production is meant for the export market. The agricultural systems that prevail in significant sectors of the LAC region are characterized by a mosaic of continuous cropping systems, complex crop/pest management systems, and biological, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity, all of which need to be considered in the adoption strategies of any agricultural new technology, including genetically engineered crops.

Currently, the most commercialized biotechnological product in the LAC region has been transgenic seed, but it has been concentrated basically in one country. The next in importance is the selling of virus-free stocks and seeds, and in third place are biopesticides and other agricultural bioinputs (Dellacha, 2003). Countries which have used modern biotechnologies like genetic engineering have had a higher value of their seed market (Brazil, US$1,200; Argentina, US$810; Mexico, US$350) than those using mature technologies like tissue culture (Bolivia, US$35; Ecuador, US$12; Trigo, Traxler, Pray & Echevarria, 2000).

Human Resources and Funding

The FAO's 2000 report pointed out to a general weakness in the quantity and quality of regional biotechnology researchers: Only 40% of the limited number available were postgraduates, and only about 10% had doctoral degrees. Most researchers were biologists or agronomists, with very few specialized in key areas such as molecular genetics, molecular biology, protein engineering, molecular and industrial microbiology, or bioinformatics.

An aggressive program of personnel development needs to be implemented in most LAC countries in basic sciences and cutting-edge biotechnological applications—in particular, in the Central American and the Andean regions—otherwise any biotechnological program aimed at generating income and employment would face serious drawbacks. By 1999, the LAC region invested only 0.59% of the IGP in research and development, with Brazil, Chile, and Cuba showing the highest level. However, even these lagged behind countries like Canada (1.61%), France (2.18%), the United States (2.84%), and Japan (3.06%). Dellacha et al. (2003) reported that 62% of the scientific and technological activities in LAC were funded through the state's national science and technology councils, 28% by companies, and 9% by universities; funding coming from external sources was approximately 1%. State support and private investment for biotechnology research varies in the region. In some countries, it is minimal; for example, in Peru the 1998 funds from the state amounted only to 0.06% of the IGP, while in Brazil state funding was 0.86% in 1999.

Potential of Biotechnology for Biodiversity Valorization in the LAC Region

The LAC region concentrates major biodiversity hotspots of the world (Table 6). The region is also a center of origin and diversity of a number of species that sustain current world food supply (e.g., potato, sweetpotato, corn, tomato, beans, cassava, peanuts, pineapple, cacao, chili pepper, and papaya). Furthermore, the greatest number of flowering plants with unusual sources of compounds for food and agriculture, as well as for the biopharmaceutical, nutraceutical, cosmetic, and environmental industries, exists in this region (Table 7). This comparative advantage needs to be explored and sustainably utilized by integrating the emerging biotechnologies with the region's rich traditional knowledge on the properties and attributes of its biological resources. The world market for biological resource-derived ingredients and molecules in 1999 was US$925 billion for different sectors and industries (Inst. A.V. Humboldt, 2003).

Several LAC research groups have begun to work with native forest and medicinal species with the view to explore commercial opportunities in the use of natural ingredients (Table 7). Application of simple bioprocessing technologies offers a short-term approach for the production of sweeteners, flavor products, fruit juices, amino acids, pigments, vitamins, and antioxidants. For example, the Agroindustrial Group Backus S.A. in Peru has used camu-camu, an Amazonian fruit of the Myrtaceae family, for ascorbic acid extraction.

Table 6. Biodiversity richness in some Latin American countries.
Country Flowering plants Birds Amphibians Butterflies Mammals NBIa
Thousand species (rank)
Colombia 45-51 (2) 1,815 (1) 583 (1) 3,100 (3) 456 (5) 0.935
Brazil 56-60 (1) 1,622 (3) 516 (2) 3,100 (2) 524 (1) 0.877
Peru 20-25 (9) 1,703 (2) 251 (7) 3,532 (1) 361 (6) 0.843
Ecuador 1,559 (4) 358 (3) 2,200 (7) 280 0.873
Mexico 18-30 (5) 1,050 (12) 282 (4) 2,237 (6) 502 (3) 0.928
Bolivia 18-20 1,360 (8) 155 — (4) 267 0.724
Note. Data from Institute A. von Humboldt (2003).
a NBI: National Biodiversity Index. This index is based on estimates of country richness and endemisms. Index values range between 1.000 and 0.000.

Table 7. Some wild and cultivated plant biodiversity from Latin America and the Caribbean with current or potential use in the agricultural, food, health, nutraceutical, and environmental industries.
Biological resource Ecosystema Key ingredients Some reported properties
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) H Alkaloids, esteroids Fertility, sexual disfunction, vigor enhancer
Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) H Isothiocyanates, pigments Antibacteria (E. pilori), antioxidants, insecticide
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolia) H/L Oligofructans Low-calorie sweetener
Native potatoes (Solanum andigena, S. stenotomum, S. goniocalix, S. curtilobum, S. juzepsuki, S. chaucha, S. Ajanhuiri) H Pigments (anthocianins, xanthophylls, carotenoids) Antioxidants, nutraceutic
Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) H Pigments, alkaloids Antioxidants, nutraceutic, insect repelent
Arracacha (Arracacia xanthorriza) H/L Starch Nutritive food for babies
Achira (Canna edulis) H/L Starch (large size grain) Starch industry
Mauka (Mirabilis expansa) H   Antiviral, antifungal
Sangre de grado (Croton lechleri, C. perspiciosus, C. palanostigma, C. gossypifolium, C. draconoides) L Pro-anthocianidins (catequine, epicatequine, galocatequine Antiviral, cicatrizing
Matico (Piper angustifolium, P. aduncum) H Monoterpenes (camphor, camphenol, borneol, borneol-iso), sesquiterpenes (bisabolol-beta), phenil propanoid Nutraceutic, anti-inflammatory, antitussive, anti-diarrheic, anti- Trichomona vaginale, antiseptic (anti- E. coli Sataphylococcus aureus, Cryptococcus neoformans, Trichophyton mentagrophytes)
Manayupa (Desmodium molliculum) H Steroids and organic acids Mucous membrane anti-inflammatory
Sand flower (Tiquilia paronychoides) H Neuroglandular system anti-inflammatory
Agracejo (Berberi vulgaris) H Hepatovesicle anti-inflammatory
White flower (Buddleja incana) H Genitourinary anti-inflammatory
Canchalagua (Schkuria pinnata) H Anti-inflammatory, blood detoxicating
Andean grains (Chenopodium quinoa, C. pallidicaule, Amaranthus cadatus) H High protein content, saponins Nutritive food
Tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis) H High protein content Nutritive food
Ñuna (Phaseolus vulgaris) H High protein content Nutritive food
Sangre de drago de Socotra (Dracaena cinnaban) H/L Pigments Natural colorant
Tara (Caesalpinea tintorea) H Tannins Anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, leather industry
Achiote (Bixa orellana) L Pigments Natural colorant for food industry
Airampo (Opuntia spp.) H Pigments Natural colorant
Boliche (Sapindus saponaria) H Saponins Personal care, detergent
Atajo (Amaranthus spp.; wild kiwicha) H Iodine, proteins Nutraceutical food
Molle (Echinus molle) H Insect repellent
Wild papaya (Carica peruviana) L Papaine Food industry
Tomate de árbol (Cyphomandra betacea) H/L Micronutrients Nutritive food
Uchuva (Physalis peruviana) H Vitamins A & C Nutraceutic, micronutrients
Camu Camu (Myrciaria spp.) L Ascorbic acid Food industry, pharmacological
Pasifloras (Passiflora spp.) H/L Vitamins A & C Nutraceutic, micronutrients
Lúcuma (Pouteria caimita) L Flavors, pigments, vitamins, fats Nutraceutic, cosmetics
Chirimoyas (Annona cherimolla) L Vitamins A & C, calcium, phosphorous Micronutrients, nutraceutic
Guanábana (Annona muricata) L Micronutrients Food
Sauco (Sambucus peruviana) H Flavors, pigments, vitamin C Antioxidant
Mora (Rubus spp.) H Flavors, pigments Antioxidant
Chiles and rocoto (Capsicum spp.) H Capsisicum acid (alkaloid), ascorbic acid Flavors, antiseptic
Sweetpotato (Ipomoea batatas) L Carotenoids, provitamin A Micronutrients
Muña (Minthostachys mollis) H Essential oils Spicy, insecticide, bactericide
Algarrobo (Prosopis peruviana) L Vitamins Flavors, nutraceutic, syrup
Cotton (Gosyppium spp.) L Pigments Textile industry
Wild anise (Tagetes filifolia) H Essential oils Aromatic, diuretic
Coca (Erytroxylum cocae) H Alkaloids, vitamins, minerals Stimulative drug, vasodilator, food industry
Pihuayo (Bactris gasipaes) L Carotenoids, pigments, fats Micronutrients, food industry
a H—highland ecosystems; L—lowland ecosystems; H/L—highland and lowland ecosystems.

The nutraceutical and biopharmaceutical products have become the third and fourth most important markets for biological resource-derived products (Table 8). In order to tackle these emergent markets, new scientific specializations are being created in universities and industry worldwide. Some have resulted from the merging of former branches of science; for example, ethnobotany has joined with pharmacology to form ethnopharmacology. On the other hand, new tools are being developed for the automatization and miniaturization of genetic and chemical analyses and syntheses (e.g., robotics, DNA chips, combinatorial chemistry, liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry, X-ray spectrophotometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, among others). The so-called new "omic" sciences (functional genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics) and bioinformatics are improving the search of chemical principles from plant species to develop new target-specific drugs. Not only are specialized personnel and modern equipment needed to achieve scale-up capabilities in this field, but appropriate business management, including IPR (Table 9), are major factors that still limit commercial takeoff in the LAC region.

Table 8. Estimated annual global market for biodiversity-derived products, 2001.
Industry sector US$ billion
Agricultural products 62
Functional foods 55.5
Herbal medicines & nutraceuticals 50.6
Pharmaceuticals 43.7
Biopharmaceuticals 12
Seeds 3.7
Personal care and cosmetics 2.9
Note. Data from Market analysis for utilization of biodiversity platforms in the Andean region through technological applications (report submitted to CAF), 2003. Available on the World Wide Web:ñol(verweb).pdf.

Table 9. Current biosafety and intellectual property protection framework in LAC countries, 2002.
Country Biosafety Intellectual property
Argentina yes regulations enforced
Bolivia yes under development
Brazil yes regulations enforced
Chile yes regulations enforced
Colombia yes regulations enforced
Costa Rica yes existing laws
Cuba yes regulations enforced
Ecuador yes existing laws
Guatemala yes existing laws
Mexico yes regulations enforced
Paraguay yes regulations enforced
Peru law without local norms existing laws
Uruguay yes regulations enforced
Venezuela under development regulations enforced

Since 1997, Brazil has implemented several genome projects in universities and private research laboratories under the management of a virtual institute, the Organization for Nucleotide Sequencing and Analysis (ONSA; "Brazil a new mecca for genomics?", 2002). The organisms selected include bacteria and plants important to Brazil's economy and also of global interest (e.g., sugarcane, Xylella fastidiosa, Xanthomonas species, and Eucalyptus). These studies involve high-throughput sequencing, functional genomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics, among other advanced technologies. The initial goal was the sequencing of the plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa, which was achieved for the first time worldwide. Other efforts in the region are in Mexico, Cuba, and recently in Chile, where the national genome project will tackle the functional genomics of grapevine and peach (Table 3). A Latin American Genome Biology Network, sponsored by the United Nations University for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNU-BIOLAC), has been created with the objective of enhancing linkages among Latin American groups working with high-throughput genomic technologies (Ramirez et al., 2002).

In 2003, a study in Andean countries (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) supported by CAF (Corporación Andina de Fomento) and CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) was initiated with the goal of analyzing biotechnological, institutional, and human-resource capacities involved in biotechnology research and development for biodiversity utilization and generation of biotechnological products and biotrades. The study also analyzes the global/regional market trends for their potential commercialization and eventually will offer recommendations and strategic guidelines in support of these countries to promote sustainable value-added transformation and commercialization of products derived from biodiversity and biotechnology.

The regional CGIAR centers, the CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT, and the regional organization (CATIE) have played active roles for many years in the regional development of biotechnology applications to selected crop plants through the diffusion of advanced strategic technologies (including genomic), have offered technical and scientific training, and have developed collaborative work with national research institutions (Table 4). REDBIO has had, and continues to have, a critical role in developing biotechnology science and applications in the LAC region. We believe it is now time to turn attention to biodiversity-based biotechnology research and development. Another promising future role of biotechnology is the enhancing of natural biological systems, such as nitrogen fixation, photosynthetic efficiency, soil nutrient cycling efficiency, abiotic (drought, acidity, salinity) stress adaptation, and the reduction of off-farm inputs such as agrochemicals. All have far-reaching implications for sustainable agricultural systems in LAC agroecologies like the Andean region. At present, however, most commercial biological products used in countries like Colombia and Cuba have been elaborated using the bacterium B. thuringiensis, the fungi Beauveria, Metarhizium, and Paecilomyces, and baculoviruses.

Strengthening Biotechnology and Biodiversity Research in the LAC Region

In recent years, private investment in agricultural R&D has increased, particularly in countries where effective and transparent regulatory frameworks are in place and comparative research infrastructure and qualified human resources exist. A dynamic biotechnological industry, with clusters of companies and public research institutions, has begun to emerge in some LAC countries.

Joint public/private ventures have explored collaborations to address bioproduct market demands. One example is a bioprospecting collaboration, under an ICBG project, between the Aguaruna community of Peru, three universities, and the G.D. Searle Corporate Partnership, to apply ethnomedicinal approaches for examining plant biodiversity based on the Aguaruna pharmacopeia and involving a wide range of human diseases and syndromes. Patent applications have been filed as a result; benefit sharing with the communities has been included (Lewis, Lamas, Vaisberg, Corley, & Sarasara, 1999). Another ICBG project in Panama is searching new bioactive compounds against cancer and the tropical parasites causing malaria, leishmaniasis, and Chagas' disease, through a collaboration between Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, several universities in Panama and one in the United States, and Novartis. Another example is the Minas Gerais biotechnological cluster comprising more than 30 enterprises under the leadership of BIOBRAS S.A., with annual sales of R$160 million. In Cuba, the Biotechnological West Pole of La Havana comprises more than 40 specialized biotechnology centers (Dellacha, 2003); others include the BioTrade initiative for the promotion of biodiversity-derived products and services in Colombia, under the leadership of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, and the emerging companies in Amazonia supported by UNCTAD-Bolsa Amazonica-IavH (Inst. A.V. Humboldt, 2003).

The adoption of intellectual property and biosafety regulations has recently been promoted, but management and enforcement varies among LAC countries (Table 9). Chile is the only country where biotechnological processes can be patented. Microorganisms can be patented in Brazil and Mexico, but neither microorganisms nor genes can be patented in the Andean countries. In most countries, UPOV-type plant variety protection systems exist. Stimulation of investments and facilitation of the acquisition of technologies through collaborative partnerships should go hand-in-hand with mechanisms to link the research with the holders of biological resources. Governments can offer tax and other incentives to investors; these incentives should encourage the sharing of the derived benefits with the research partners and with the traditional curators of genetic resources.

Finally, it is relevant to mention that food insecurity in large sectors of the LAC region is a consequence of inadequate social, economic, and technological development. The new biotechnologies open a range of opportunities for increasing biodiversity-based product diversification. It is necessary to bear in mind not only the local socioeconomic context, but also the level of export/import of agricultural and biodiversity derived products; the importance of the small, medium, and large agro-industry in the economy; the country's research and technological capacities; and the existence of a legal framework that stimulates biodiversity conservation and utilization. The situation of the resource-poor farmer should be taken into account, to make sure that the benefits of modern biotechnologies reach this important sector—currently a majority in some LAC countries.


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The authors wish to thank Dr. Nigel Taylor for his valuable comments in reviewing this paper.

Suggested citation: Roca, W., Espinoza, C., & Panta, A. (2004). Agricultural applications of biotechnology and the potential for biodiversity valorization in Latin America and the caribbean. AgBioForum, 7(1&2), 13-22. Available on the World Wide Web:
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