7th International Consultative Council (ICC) of the AgroBioInstitute, Sofia, Bulgaria

7th International Consultative Council (ICC) of the AgroBioInstitute (ABI) – Bulgaria took place from 3 to 5 May 2003 in Hotel “Rodina”, Sofia, Bulgaria.

AgroBioInstitute is the only research institute in Eastern Europe, which work is guided by the International Consultative Council with a membership of leading scientists in plant biotechnology all over the world. Starting from 1988 (3 years after foundation of the Central Laboratory of Genetic Engineering in 1985) the Council regularly has meetings every second year. The aim of ICC is to evaluate the current research projects and related activities of the Institute and to trace the strategy for further scientific investigations.
According to the decision from the First meeting and the policy, the institute invites also foreign guests. This year 105 participants took part in the 7th ICC, among them: 6 members of ICC (Prof. Guenter Adam, Prof. Gerhard Wenzel and Prof. Yuri Gleba – from Germany, Prof. Shamay Izhar – from Israel, Prof. Jacque-Henry Weil – from France and Prof. Masahiro Sugiura – from Japan); 15 foreign guests – Belgium (Prof. Lucien Carlier and Mrs Yitka Wenekens – Capkova, representative of the European Commission), Cyprus (Prof. Nicolaus Ioannou), Finland (Prof. Sirpa Karenlampi), Greece (Ioannis Polidorus), The Netherlands (Prof. Willem Brandenburg), Japan (Prof Kioharu Oono), Turkey (Prof. Ismail Cakmak and Prof. Nermin Guzukarmizi), Ukraine (Dr. Maksim Melnichuk) and USA (Prof. Allan McHughen, Prof. Anatole Krattiger, Prof. Clive James, Prof. David Tawley and Prof. John Power); 19 members of National Council of ABI, 18 Researchers, 13 PhD students, 21 – Experts – from ABI' staff and 13 Bulgarian guests.
The evaluation was based on presentations given by staff members and detailed discussions with the scientists who have implemented projects for the reported period. The recommendations were discussed within 14 Working Groups, consisting of Council's Members, guests and scientists working in the relevant fields. The Council greatly appreciates and acknowledges the current achievements of ABI and their impact on the development of Plant Biotechnology in Bulgaria, and the region. An excellent evaluation was given to the report's performance (good language skills and design); this justifies the necessity and benefit of the ICC meetings. For the long-term perspective the outcome of the discussions serve as a prerequisite guide for the future success, sustainability and development of the Bulgarian agriculture and economy. The 7th ICC made the following recommendations:

WG 1. Plant Genetic Resources and Biodiversity

Gene bank collection in ABI has a main aim to collect and enrich accessions of economically valuable vegetatively propagated plants – grape, roses, small fruits, essential oil plants and herbs. Techniques for characterization, evaluation, preservation and utilization have been applied. Cooperation with World Gene bank and Botanical Gardens in respect of exchange of samples and database has been established. ABI-PGR group has improved its phytosanitary facilities for the benefit of the agriculture. These facilities should be up to date and according to international standards. Developing of protocol for rose somatic embryos cryopreservation and identification of genetic variability after regeneration of rose somatic embryos and somaclonal variation. is considered to be valuable.
Creation of modern nurseries for the production of basic plant material from the above mentioned crops for farmers use is recommended as a priority in this regard.
Study on the interaction between genotype and environment for the purpose of the Bioinformatics Group and Creation of web page including information about ABI-Plant Genetic Resources Group – capacity and strategy for development of research and commercial activities will be useful in the near future.

WG 2. Biotech Approaches to Improve Biotic Stress Resistance in Plants

It was recommended to perform additional field trials with different transgenic crops for risk evaluation in order to obtain more data for their registration. After the GMO law is accepted registration of transgenic tobacco lines with different resistances should be initiated. Registration of tobacco lines resistant to Phytophthora parasitica var. nicotianae, obtained by cell selection is urgent. The work for development of homozugous transgenic tobacco lines with complex resistance to TSWV, PVY, Pseudomonas syringae pv. tabaci and Glean should be continued. Broad spectrum resistance to biotic stress encoded by introduced defensin gene should be a part of the future research program.
The research work for developing of transgenic plants from Solanaceae species for new traits of resistances should be initiated.
ICC supports the idea to focus on Orobanche research on molecular markers for differentiation of Orobanche spp. and races and characterization of sunflower and tobacco mutant lines resistant to broomrape.
It will be beneficiary to develop and apply molecular methods based on nucleic acid (NA) for pathogen detections.
Some incomes can be generated through providing a service for diagnosis and indexing of plant material and by producing virus free propagation material for mass propagation by customers.

WG 3. Biotech Approaches for Quality Improvement and Abiotic Stress Tolerance

WG 3.1. Biotech Approaches for Quality Improvement

On the base of the discussion with the scientists from ABI, working with the above topic, and members of the ICC, the following recommendations were formulated:
Quality improvement of crops is the next generation of the transgenic technology application and ABI should continue the efforts in this direction. Concerning the future commercialization of the experimental materials, it was suggested further transformation experiments to be carried out with constructs caring preferably genes and promoters of plant origin. The efforts for engineering of herbicide resistant plants should be focused on the development and extension of novel, safer herbicide resistant varieties based on plant derived resistance genes.
As one of the promising topics for future research activities, production of pharmaceutical substances in farm grown transgenic crops e.g. barley, maize, alfalfa is considered.
The existing transgenic plants with improved quality should be well characterized in field conditions, and the ecological impact of the field released transgenic form must be assessed. The transgenic varieties should be submitted for registration immediately after the law for GMO is implemented in Bulgaria.

WG 3.2. Abiotic Stress Tolerance in Plants

The participants of the Working Group were very pleased by the reported results and achievements of the relevant projects. They will eventually strengthen international cooperation and develop national programmes in agriculture. Specific comments and recommendations:
It was noted that more focused approach is needed in the future, by using both well characterized model species (for basic studies) and selected crop species which are of great importance for Bulgaria and the surrounding regions (for applied studies).
The number of stress factors studied at present is quite broad and a consideration should be given to limit it to the most relevant stress factors, such as extreme temperatures and heavy metals (phytoremediation).
It is important to take into account the biosafety aspects, such as gene flow and use of selectable markers, during the whole process of research, development and application of GM plants.
Strengthening of collaboration is recommended e.g. with the research groups within the Institute studying programmed cell death and specific plant promoters.
It was noted that international cooperation has been strengthened and will be strengthened further by bilateral agreements with neighbor countries.

WG 4. Molecular Markers and Gene Cloning and Expression

After having reviewed the current research activity under “Molecular Markers and Gene Cloning and Expression”, the ICC is aware of the fact that the performing of research in those areas is very essential for proper midterm capacity building and advance technology training of the staff.

Recommendations for the Area Molecular Markers

Considering the reported results on genotyping of Bulgarian grape and cereal cultivars the committee noticed the substantial progress made in these areas of research during the two years period. The obtained data allowed identification of grape cultivars and could be used for certification of planting material. The genotyping of oil rose and small fruit germplasm is also in progress. Following the discussion on capacity of ABI on performing of molecular marker application, the committee recommends priority to be given on research which involved economically important for the country crops with unique germplasm such as: grape, wheat, oil rose and small fruits. The recommended research should focus on completing of genotyping for wheat, oil rose and small fruits and QTL and gene mapping for grape and wheat. Abiotic stress tolerance will be targeted in QTL mapping research of wheat, while the unique segregating population will be used for mapping of important phenotype characteristics in grape. The committee noticed that the development of efficient SNP detection protocol allowing converting of sequence data into gene-specific SNP markers would be very beneficial for the planed long term research on mapping of ESTs and cDNAs.

- Gene Cloning, Characterization and Expression

After having reviewed the reported results on cloning and characterization of specifically expressed genes and promoter region, the ICC considers that these activities are of great importance for training and increasing professional qualification of the staff. Beside this, the results obtained within these studies could be efficiently used and incorporated into research of other groups in the institute involved in functional genomics and transgenic research, in particular by providing suitable promoters, signal peptides and transformation vectors.
The Council strongly recommends that the innovated results obtained in this group be timely considered for IPR capacity.

WG 5. Bioinformatics

The report of newly established group of Bioinformatics in AgrobioInstitute met large interest and an approval for research and development. Following suggestions were made:
There is very good background for cooperation both international and with Bulgarian partners. Bioinformatics activity is better to be oriented towards particular biological objects which will provide an economically efficient application. Most of the bioinformatics performance is in private sector and they are strongly competitive on the market. There are some suggestions about the size of bioinformatics group and the considered tasks in the report.
There was large discussion about the development of future activities of the Bioinformatics group and suggestions to: define certain research problems for developing, elaborate national genomic repository, apply for initial governmental funding for national genomic repository and apply for collaboration with international partners after presenting some development of research experience.

WG 6. Intellectual Property Rights

The working group views authoritative IP management as a critical element in ABI's overall strategy to ensure efficient access to and transfer of innovations. To this effect, the group strongly recommends ABI urgently to: develop a coherent IP policy and strategy, hire a technology transfer person/IP manager and integrate IP management in a wider international business development strategy.
An early investment in this area will allow the institute to better capitalize on its scientific excellence, develop sound deals and attract investments and funding from third parties, thus accelerating the further pace of development and allow the Bulgarian economy and people to benefit from biotechnology.

WG 7. Ecological Agriculture

According to the five priorities, identified by the Bulgarian Government, including sustainable development of rural areas and environmental-friendly sustainable management of arable land, environmental agriculture fully fits.
The Bulgarian situation for the development of organic farming is much better that in many other countries of the EU or Accession Countries.
It would be a great benefit to organize the Experimental Station in Samokov as a pilot farm for organic farming in favor of Bulgarian farmers and society.
Concerning ecological agriculture ICC recommends to focus on breeding activities for better adapted varieties (pests and diseases) in the long run and to examine the soil food web (myccorhiza). Therefore the suggestions were to have closer cooperation with the Biological Faculty of Sofia State University.

WG 8. Plant Genome Center

Considering the resent development and enormous importance of plant genome research world wide, the ICC recommends establishment of a Plant Genome Center, directed to accumulation of a critical mass of research capacity required for plant genomics research in Bulgaria and providing the proper technology transfer mechanism and participation in international cooperation on plant genome research.
Priority areas for the proposed Plant Genome Center are: (a) improvement of the competitiveness of the national agriculture through introducing advance breeding technologies for production of high quality and value added agricultural products, (b) evaluation and utilization of unique and economically useful national wild and cultivated germplasm with the aim of introduction of suitable alternative crops for the Bulgarian agriculture, (c) development of validated methods for analysis and certification of seed and planting material and agriculture products, (d) providing the necessary support to Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry for bringing the internal structure and practice of plant science and testing units up to the level required for EU accession, like diagnosis of diseases, DNA detection and food and feed quality .
The committee suggests the Plant Genome Center to be created in the frame of AgroBioInstitute, respectively AgroBioTech Park, which would allow utilizing the experience from the establishment of the ABTP as a joint activity of AgroBioInstitute, NCAS and Faculty of Biology, Sofia University.

WG 9. Biosafety

Starting from the current (draft) GMO Low, which is in compliance with the EU legislation, a natural authority on biosafety is going to be established. The AgroBioInstitute has laid a firm base for accomplishing this by its current UNEP/GEF project (Bulgaria is one out of eight pilot countries), building capacity for biosafety issues.
In order to meet the future requirements for its supporting scientific role it is highly recommended that the institute will be accredited (GLP). This will be also implying that the Institute will in future change its role towards supportive scientific one. In this respect and in the framework of its GEF/UNEP project and its international cooperation with Plant Research International, Wageningen, The Netherlands is of prime importance.
ABI will conduct by heading to its new role biosafety studies either funded by companies, nationally or even regionally (jointly financed by multiple countries). To this international cooperation with the Genomic Centre and the Bioinformatics centre is highly recommended to add to the results of biosafety studies.
Meanwhile the 7th ICC has recognized and appreciated the regional coordination role of CEE countries in biosafety research thus establishing its international position in this respect.

WG 10. AgroBioTech Park

Recognizing that ABI is a unique and internationally recognized crop biotechnology centre of excellence, the International Consultative Council of the AgroBioInstitute fully supports the founding of AgroBioTech Park (ABTP). The mission of ABP is to enable the various activities related to biotechnology, which will allow Bulgaria and other interested countries in the region to benefit from biotechnology. The Council notes the crucial support that has been provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and recommends that ABI urgently commision a feasibility study. The feasibility study will provide guidance to further develop the opportunity that ABTP offers Bulgaria and the region, including a strategy for forming a consortium that will provide institutional sustainability to ABTP for the initial 3 to 5 year period of operations.

WG 11. Accredited Laboratory

On the base of the discussion with the scientist from ABI, working with the above topic, and the members of ICC, the following recommendations were formulated.
The testing of the agricultural products for the quality and safety purposes must be done according the International or EU legislation. In that point it is necessary to speed up the transition of Testing Diagnostic and Genetic Laboratory (TDGL) from accreditation according CEN 45001 to ISO/CEN 170025. The gained experience of utilized quality assurance system (QAS) of accredited TDGL will be in assistance for developing of AgroBioTech Park model. This quality system could be assumed as first step to settle Good Manufacturing Practice or certification for production of pre-basic and basic planting material.
TDGL to participate in EU proficiency networks will keep the applied methods for detection in forefront of scientific achievement in Europe.
The unique for Bulgaria accreditation of TDGL for GMO and phytopathogen testing and quality evaluation by Near Infrared Spectroscopy has significant social and economic impact to the Bulgarian agriculture, because of that financial support for the accreditation activities of ABI from FAR or other pre-accession funds of Ministry of agriculture is required.

WG 12. Ornamentals

According to recommendations and following the current activities, the further research has to be focused on the following priority topics:
n Enrichment of existing genetic resources by the introduction of: (a) foreign ornamental species and varieties aimed to be used for research, application in breeding and propagation of cut flowers, bulbs, perennials, roses and propagation material; (b) traditionally grown, in the country, old-introduced genotypes and (c) in vivo and/or in vitro collections of annuals, perennials, wild species, roses and other species.
n Breeding of: (a) carnation using inter and interspecies hybridization to achieve drought, cold, Fusarium and a resistance to other diseases, and ornamental value, (b) chrysanthemum aiming low temperature tolerance, resistance to aphids and ornamental value and (c) lily and gladiolus for shortening of vegetative phase and better ornamental characteristics.
n Quality improvement of flower production by agro techniques, investigations on irrigation and fertigation, soilless cultivation and plant nutrition, integrated pest management, post-harvest control, ways for controlling flowering, rooting and plant architecture, development of protocols for true-to-type regeneration, pathogene free mother stock and in vitro storage of most demanded ornamentals, organization of management unit – market survey for bulbs, annuals, perennials and possibilities for export of fresh flowers and propagation material.
Cooperation with ARI – Nicosia, Cyprus in tissue culture, irrigation and fertigation, post-harvest physiology, quality control and with Bulb Research Centre, Lisse, The Netherlands in breeding and fertigation and establishment of network with Botanical gardens in Sochi (Russia); Jalta (Ukraine) and Moskow (Russia), PGRG (ABI) was recommended.
There is an urgent need for the application for financial support from Ministry of Environment and Water, Ministry of Economics (Tourism), Ministry of Agriculture (SAPARD, PHARE) and private companies and growers.

WG 13. Potato

Potato is one of the main crops in the world and working on this crop is of great importance to AgroBioInstitute. Joining of the ex-Research Station of potato as a department of ABI is a good opportunity to establish a base for potato research and breeding in ABI. It is suggested ABI to create a National program for potato seeds production, based on Bulgarian cultivars after good marketing and with collaboration with Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Bulgaria. The base for such a program is already established by obtaining in vitro virus free potato plants in tissue culture lab in ABI.
Potato research is suggested to be focused to two aspects: (a) Organic farming as a base for preservation the soil fertility by testing new environmental safety fertilizers and pesticides, based on field experiments, (b) Investigation of the plant parasite – potato interactions, viral and important fungal diseases as early blight (Phytophthora infestans) and late blight (Alternaria spp.).
Screening of new Bulgarian and introduced potato cultivars for quantity and quality traits, as yield, taste quality of tubers and biotic resistance should continue to be an ordinary deal of the department during next several years. Initiating a research on gene markers for quality traits and disease resistance is recommended with prospect to gene cloning.
Establishing partnerships with good potato research groups abroad as International potato Association, Lima, is of big importance for potato research group for both methodology and financial support.
In order to expand potato seed production a separate company (e.g. as an appendix) is suggested to be established or contact with private companies. Rapid potato propagation of foreign cultivars could be another source of financial support.

WG 14. Bast Fibres Plants

The economical and ecological impact of Bast Plants in Bulgaria was considered. It was given a positive assessment of the opportunities of Bast Fibres Plants Group to maintain and to develop knowledge base for respective crops in the AgroBioInstitute and successfully to provide them to growers, producers and other potential users.
The further work should comprise: (a) Introduction, breeding and selection of foreign and Bulgarian varieties, suitable for specific agro ecological conditions of the country. (b) Test of the valuable forms (varieties, cultivars, lines) for the main traits of economical importance. The diversity of conditions in Bulgaria is a preposition for obtaining of reliable results. This knowledge could be valuable for the countries from this part of Europe. It will be valuable to include the future transformed flax plants on the field trials and breeding.
For the ooptimisation of the retting process of flax stems, keeping the most possible quality and quantity of fibres is recommended to continue the work in collaboration with UMT, Sofia, Textile Department. The close connections of the group with the farmers and the industry will continue to be one of the main functions of the Bast Plants Group.
ICC recommended introducing Urtica diotica such fibre plant in to Bulgarian agro ecosystem, to introduce some cultivars, develop methods of cultivation and processing as modelling perennial fibre crop in cooperation with University of Hamburg to start selection program.
ICC was pleased to note that consistent with the recommendations of the 6th ICC, ABI and the University of Sofia have founded the AgroBioTech Park (ABTP).
ICC was delighted with the impressive progress which has been achieved in the research programs and in the quality of the presentations at the 7th ICC meeting.
In recognition of the sterling services of Prof. Jeff Schell, as the founding Chair of the ICC of ABI, a memorial lecture (The Jeff Schell Memorial Lecture) will be dedicated in his name by his fellow Council members.
Acknowledging the founding of the ABI by Acad. Tseno Chinkovski in 1985, the Council of ABI has pleasure in inviting him to become the founding Chairman of the Business Advisory Group of the newly founded ABT Park.
ICC highly appreciates the funding trough EC by the Centre of Excellence project of ABI.
The members of the ICC of ABI hereby authorized Prof. Atanas Atanassov and Prof. Jacques-Henry Weil to sign, on their behalf, the Final Report of the 7th ICC meeting.

The organizing committee of ICC decided

Dr. Elena Marinova,
Scientific Secretary of ABI
Denitsa Marinova,
International Program' Expert