Grow­ing New Ears of Corn

Beijing (English) - - CLOSE-UP - Trans­lated by Wang Hui­hui Edited by Mark Zuiderveld Pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin, Yan Shen and courtesy of the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences

The an­cient Silk Road con­nected civil­i­sa­tions across Asia, Africa and Europe, cross­ing deserts and en­com­pass­ing cul­tural and eco­nomic ex­changes in dif­fer­ent na­tions. As a trade route, it was a band of agri­cul­tural trade and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Agri­cul­tural prod­ucts, such as egg­plants, pep­pers and lentils, were in­tro­duced to China, where they were widely grown. Nowa­days, roles have re­versed and high- qual­ity crop va­ri­eties are be­ing pro­moted to other re­gions along the Belt and Road.

Bei­jing, as the na­tion’s sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and in­ter­na­tional exchange cen­tre, has limited cul­ti­vated land. In re­cent years, it has re­lied on science and tech­nol­ogy to boost de­vel­op­ment along the Belt and Road re­gion, and its ad­vanced seed and

other agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy are not only lead­ing the na­tion, but gain­ing global recog­ni­tion in the process.

Corn Rocks

Zhao Ji­u­ran, an ex­pert of the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences’ Corn Re­search Cen­tre, talks about the ‘‘Grain in the Ear" (the ninth so­lar term that marks the end of grain­grow­ing con­di­tions and serves as a re­minder to farm­ers that this is the last chance to sow crops).

Zhao ex­plains that, “Tak­ing the bul­let train back to Bei­jing, I en­joy the fast­paced scenery along the way. From south to north, the wheat har­vest sea­son moves quickly.” But Zhao’s not just in­ter­ested in the wheat har­vest. He’s also con­cerned about plant­ing corn in sum­mer.

Zhao over­saw the de­vel­op­ment of a spe­cial corn va­ri­ety, the Jingkenuo 2000, which, af­ter years of pro­mo­tion, is now planted on about 333,000 hectares, or 50 per­cent of the to­tal corn plant­ing area na­tion­wide. It won the “Na­tional Fresh Corn Science and Tech­nol­ogy Con­tri­bu­tion” Award.

Jingkenuo 2000, planted in the Repub­lic of Korea for about 10 years, is quite pop­u­lar with peo­ple there, who, like other East Asians, are fond of sticky grains and sweet taste. Some years ago, Korean rice wasn’t meet­ing mar­ket de­mand be­cause of limited land and high costs, so the coun­try be­gan to im­port corn from China. Over a long term pe­riod, Jingkenuo 2000 gained recog­ni­tion and deal­ers from the Repub­lic of Korea started to im­port. In 2005, Jingkenuo 2000 was the Repub­lic of Korea’s first Chi­nese corn va­ri­ety to pass a for­eign ex­am­i­na­tion.

Jingkenuo 2000 has also been widely planted in Viet­nam where it has am­ple rain­fall, sun­shine and suit­able tem­per­a­tures, al­though it was in­tro­duced through its bor­der trade. Be­cause of its high out­put and re­sis­tance to disease this corn va­ri­ety has be­come the sec­ond ma­jor com­mer­cial crop af­ter rice, with an an­nual cul­ti­va­tion area above 66,600 hectares.

In July 2017, three tech­ni­cians from Viet­nam came to Bei­jing Academy

of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences to take part in a cul­ti­va­tion train­ing ses­sion. Li Cheng­gui, the Academy’s pres­i­dent, ad­dressed the gath­er­ing and said, “Co­op­er­a­tion is not a oneway tech­no­log­i­cal chan­nel. As seeds are sown along the Belt and Road, a bridge of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is built, ex­pand­ing the in­flu­ence of China’s ad­vanced agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy and seed re­sources.”

Qual­ity First

As corn spreads to more coun­tries, such as Cam­bo­dia, Myan­mar and Thai­land, Zhao re­marks, “High-qual­ity prod­ucts come first,” but at the same time he keeps a clear mind and says, “We don’t do our R&D for ex­ports. Our corn is pop­u­lar in for­eign coun­tries for its qual­ity.” But the story goes back fur­ther, when the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences be­gan its new corn R&D in 1996, well be­fore Jingkenuo 2000 was ex­ported along the Belt and Road and hy­bridi­s­a­tion was com­pleted in 2000. There were nu­mer­ous at­tempts in dif­fer­ent places un­til the new corn type was in­cluded in a re­gional trial and or­gan­ised by the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture in 2003.

The fol­low­ing year, Yu Shi­long, from Tonghua, Jilin Prov­ince, got ahold of some of the seeds and planted them on his farm. To his sur­prise, he had a great har­vest with big cobs and plenty of seeds. Then, in 2006, it passed a na­tional exam and be­gan be­ing sold na­tion­wide and its pro­duc­tiv­ity and its qual­ity be­came well-known both at home and abroad.

Jingkenuo 2000 has suc­ceeded in in­creas­ing corn out­put by 32 per­cent or more, mak­ing it the most widely planted corn na­tion­wide. Zhao says proudly, “The corn is ready for eat­ing af­ter boil­ing or quick-freez­ing and tastes soft, gluti­nous and sweet even af­ter be­ing stewed.”

Since the mar­ket is the sole cri­te­rion for its suc­cess, Jingkenuo 2000 corn has been suc­cess­ful as a favourable mar­ket prod­uct thanks to its qual­ity, mak­ing it suit­able for trade. But the real key to its mar­ket de­mand are its high yields.

When Zhao was asked, “Can you tell us what it is about Jingkenuo 2000 that brings such high yields?” he grew ex­cited, since the an­swer is in the hy­brid corn R&D, the very thing he’s been en­gaged in for more than 30 years. In the past, ad­van­tages of var­i­ous hy­brid corn va­ri­eties weren't so ob­vi­ous, and most came from matches con­ducted by farm­ers them­selves.

Zhao added, “We’ve made break­throughs in the orig­i­nal hy­brid model to bring greater ad­van­tages to corn. We matched a hard type with a fari­na­ceous type, mak­ing the corn softer and tastier.”

The Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences has made use of some DH hap­loid tech­nol­ogy in­tro­duced from the US in 2005, with pol­li­nat­ing hy­brid corn seeds, with 10 pairs of corn chro­mo­somes evolv­ing into a ho­mo­ge­neous breed through sci­en­tific ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Zhao ex­plained, “The orig­i­nal ho­mo­ge­neous breed would take six to seven ro­ta­tions, or at least three to four years to take shape, but nowa­days just takes a year,” which ex­plains higher yields.

Re­search and de­vel­op­ment on Jingkenuo 2000 be­gan in 1996. Af­ter four years of tri­als, the op­ti­mal com­bi­na­tion ap­peared. It passed a na­tional ex­am­i­na­tion in 2006, and, ac­cord­ing to the di­rec­tor, “Tech­nol­ogy, ei­ther good or bad, is ul­ti­mately re­flected in the prod­uct. The key here is con­stant in­no­va­tion and en­hance­ment.”

In this, Zhao com­mented on twists and turns in R&D, say­ing he still feels lucky get­ting the high-qual­ity seed af­ter deal­ing with pit­falls, be­cause many va­ri­eties failed to yield any re­sult or had to be elim­i­nated mid­way through ex­per­i­ments. The Bei­jing Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences Academy’s Corn Re­search Cen­tre was set up in 1997, and, for now, Zhao is lead­ing his team to cul­ti­vate over 30 corn va­ri­eties to meet var­i­ous needs.

A Tian­jianuo va­ri­ety be­ing pro­moted com­bines sweet and gluti­nous va­ri­eties and is rich in vi­ta­mins and folic acid, with 295 mi­cro­grams of folic acid per 100 grams of grain. Apart from sci­en­tific in­no­va­tions, the Re­search Cen­tre is also think­ing glob­ally, with a Belt and Road Fresh Corn Demon­stra­tion Pro­ject ap­proved by the Agri­cul­ture Min­istry and new va­ri­eties to be pro­moted in South­east Asia to ben­e­fit more peo­ple.

DNA Fin­ger­prints

The Bei­jing Corn Seed Test­ing Cen­tre, on the sec­ond floor of the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences build­ing, has the largest corn DNA fin­ger­print data­base in the world, with echo­ing sounds of tech­ni­cians strip­ping Jingkenuo 868 corn ker­nels.

Corn’s DNA print could be called its “molec­u­lar ID card.” As Yi Hong­mei, a Corn Seed Test­ing Cen­tre tech­ni­cian, puts it, “The ‘molec­u­lar ID of corn uses DNA fin­ger­print tech­nol­ogy to study the corn’s genes and dis­tin­guish the spe­cial gene frag­ments of each va­ri­ety.”

Un­der Zhao’s guid­ance, the team mem­bers have made ef­forts to col­lect corn DNA data for more than 20 years, so that the huge data bank is now home to more than 10,000 matches from var­i­ous prov­inces and coun­tries, more than 2,000 va­ri­eties with rights pro­tec­tion, more than 3,500 va­ri­eties with ap­proval from the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, and more than 1,000 farm de­vel­oped re­sources, with at least 26,000 corn “molec­u­lar ID cards” in the data­base.

What are these “molec­u­lar ID cards” for? One an­swer is that they’re able to guar­an­tee se­cu­rity of gen­uine food. There are more than 5,000 hy­brid corn va­ri­eties with a na­tional- or provincelevel ap­proval and thou­sands of va­ri­eties that have been used for tri­als at dif­fer­ent lev­els, not to men­tion those ap­ply­ing for new va­ri­ety pro­tec­tion.

Corn’s ge­netic dif­fer­ences are so sub­tle that the naked eye can’t see their shape and char­ac­ter, so coun­ter­feit or sub­stan­dard va­ri­eties are con­sid­ered a risk in the seed in­dus­try. In the cir­cu­la­tion process, seed en­ter­prise rights pro­tec­tion and the seed mar­ket face in­creas­ing chal­lenges.

Corn's DNA fin­ger­print ID tech­nol­ogy re­sem­bles a pa­ter­nity test and can eas­ily dis­tin­guish each corn va­ri­ety on a molec­u­lar level.

In the Corn Seed Test­ing Cen­tre’s lab­o­ra­tory, tech­ni­cians sam­ple the corn’s DNA, ex­am­ine gene frag­ments, and com­pare in­for­ma­tion in­stantly to iden­tify the seeds. Com­ment­ing on this, Zhao says, “In the past, an­nual sam­pling took three to six months to get test re­sults. The DNA

fin­ger­print data­base now al­lows us to do the tests and get re­sults on the same day.” De­tec­tion is quick and sim­ple.

Yi, a tech­ni­cian, goes on to ex­plain, “A hu­man DNA com­par­i­son needs only 16 loci, whereas the corn DNA com­par­i­son needs 40,” for com­par­i­son in the com­puter. The test takes only min­utes for the ma­chine to iden­tify. Yi adds, “To avoid any iden­ti­fi­ca­tion er­ror, the test is done si­mul­ta­ne­ously by two groups of tech­ni­cians and if the re­sults of both groups are con­sis­tent, they use fol­low-up mea­sures to en­sure that the re­sults are 100 per­cent ac­cu­rate.”

The data­base sys­tem con­nected to the In­ter­net is recog­nised by the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and the High Court. The Corn Re­search Cen­tre has also come up with eight DNA fin­ger­prints to stan­dard­ise the molec­u­lar de­tec­tion of corn. China has also es­tab­lished a Hy­brid Rice DNA Fin­ger­print Data­base, and is work­ing on DNA data­bases for wheat, soy­beans, cot­ton and other crops, and par­tic­i­pa­tion in for­mu­lat­ing stan­dards in­volv­ing world­wide tech­nol­ogy.

This form of val­i­da­tion pro­vides tech­ni­cal sup­port for va­ri­ety pro­tec­tion, for its dis­tinc­tion, uni­for­mity, sta­bil­ity (DUS) test, law en­force­ment and farmer rights pro­tec­tion, and can iden­tify more than 50,000 sam­ples. A big data crop va­ri­ety DNA fin­ger­print base in China is grad­u­ally tak­ing shape to make it pos­si­ble to iden­tify crop va­ri­eties, ac­cu­mu­late data, pro­tect re­sources, cir­cu­late ma­te­ri­als, share trade re­sults, trace seed ori­gins, and in­no­vate a more fair mar­ket en­vi­ron­ment.

Zhao has some in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tives on Bei­jing build­ing a na­tional sci­en­tific in­no­va­tion cen­tre with a pre­cise eco­nomic struc­ture. “In agri­cul­tural science and tech­nol­ogy, the state can so­licit views of tech­ni­cians across a wide range be­fore un­der­tak­ing ma­jor projects and mea­sures. We tech­ni­cians also take an ac­tive part in the de­ci­sion­mak­ing process and give advice and sug­ges­tions to make full use of the cap­i­tal’s think tank,” Zhao says.

Zhao says that Bei­jing has a wealth of think tanks, es­pe­cially in science and tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion and in­sti­tu­tions with ex­perts to sup­port de­ci­sion-mak­ing of the mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment.

Golden Fields of Wheat

To the west of the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences there are fields full of golden wheat, with heads full of plump grain. Here, in con­trast with more gen­eral wheat

fields, the tops have white pa­per cov­ers, with some bear­ing a white note and se­rial num­ber. Dur­ing the Grain in the Ear so­lar term, Zhao Chang­ping, an Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences ex­pert who over­sees wheat fields, runs about all over China sur­vey­ing wheat fields.

Zhao com­mented on China’s wheat deal with Pak­istan and said,

“This was the world’s first hy­brid wheat va­ri­ety pro­moted in a for­eign coun­try, achiev­ing com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion.” He was re­fer­ring to the 2014 Bei­jing World Seed Con­gress, where Bei­jing seed com­pa­nies signed 15 mil­lion in US dol­lars worth of con­tracts, news of which caused a sen­sa­tion in Bei­jing.

One agreement, the China and Pak­istan Hy­brid Wheat In­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion Co­op­er­a­tion Agreement, be­tween CNSGC Hy­brid Wheat Seed (Bei­jing) and Pak­istan Guard Agri­cul­tural Re­search Ser­vices (Pvt.) in­di­cated that China’s hy­brid wheat would be planted in Pak­istan. That wheat go­ing to Pak­istan was Jing­mai No. 7, a Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences de­vel­op­ment, led by Zhao, the wheat ex­pert. That hy­brid wheat va­ri­ety has in­creased lo­cal crop out­put in Pak­istan by more than a third.

How to make the most out of hy­brid wheat has been a world­wide chal­lenge and the first is­sue to deal with in in­creas­ing wheat's pro­duc­tive ca­pac­ity. It is at the core of the in­ter­na­tional seed in­dus­try com­pe­ti­tion. Zhao and his team cul­ti­vated a high-yield wheat with great re­sis­tance and qual­ity to over­come a tech­ni­cal prob­lem that puz­zled sci­en­tists around the globe for 60 years, and their Jing­mai No. 7 was an­other sig­nif­i­cant re­sult of China’s crop science work, apart from the hy­brid rice. It came thanks to the team’s years of ar­du­ous ef­fort, re­sult­ing in high yields.

One rainy morn­ing over 20 years ago, Zhao Chang­ping made his way out to a muddy wheat field in Hu­nan Prov­ince to ob­serve the test plot and stum­bled upon a ster­ile male plant, then a sec­ond, and third. Zhao, al­ways pas­sion­ate about in­creas­ing wheat yields, got ex­cited af­ter go­ing on to find dozens of these ster­ile wheat plants and be­gan run­ning around the fields de­spite the rain.

China’s break­throughs in the 1990s utilised hy­brid wheat af­ter a dis­cov­ery of photo- thermo- sen­si­tive ster­ile male wheat. At that time, there was suc­cess­ful hy­brids of crops such as corn, rice and oilseed rape, but be­cause of the com­plex­ity of wheat genes, the hy­brid wheat seed busi­ness

was un­der­de­vel­oped.

It took Zhao and the team 20 years of hard work to over­come dif­fi­cul­ties, in­clud­ing seed se­lec­tion of the pho­tothermo-sen­si­tive ster­ile line, large-scale, ef­fi­cient seed pro­duc­tion, bet­ter hy­brid cre­ation and ap­pli­ca­tions, but they did suc­ceed in creat­ing hy­brid wheat com­bi­na­tions that were able to in­crease out­put by 20 per­cent or more.

Mov­ing on from there, they also took the lead in China’s orig­i­nal high­tech re­sult—the Ii-line Hy­brid Wheat Tech­nol­ogy Sys­tem, blaz­ing new paths for hy­brid wheat us­ages, while their R&D level and ap­pli­ca­tion speed put China’s hy­brid wheat re­search at the world's top.

Go­ing Global

That high- qual­ity hy­brid wheat va­ri­ety, based on tech­nol­ogy and re­search, gave the re­sult­ing prod­ucts a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion and at­tracted many coun­tries and multi­na­tional com­pa­nies look­ing to co­op­er­ate.

As a re­sult, in spring of 2015, Zhao Chang­ping felt the en­thu­si­asm of lo­cal farm­ers at a meet­ing for wheat seeds in La­hore, Pak­istan. In re­call­ing the mo­ment, Zhao says, “We had a demon­stra­tion field there and it hap­pened to be wheat har­vest time, so many lo­cal farm­ers were com­pet­ing to pur­chase our seeds af­ter see­ing the demon­stra­tion field.”

Much land in Pak­istan is bar­ren or de­serted, but China’s hy­brid wheat was wel­come be­cause of its high yields, drought re­sis­tance and bar­ren­ground adapt­abil­ity. In fact, sup­plies of the high- qual­ity hy­brid wheat va­ri­ety used in lo­cal tra­di­tional foods was hardly enough to meet de­mand. Zhao goes on to ex­plain, “Com­pared with tra­di­tional lo­cal wheat va­ri­eties, our hy­brid wheat could in­crease out­puts by 30 per­cent on av­er­age

while cut­ting ir­ri­ga­tion in half.”

Small won­der that the high­qual­ity Jing­mai se­ries hy­brid wheat had such bright mar­ket prospects and, by now has been planted in Pak­istan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Pak­istan also has nearly 200 Jing­mai hy­brid wheat plant­ing demon­stra­tion sites, mak­ing it the core of an in­ter­na­tional hy­brid wheat net­work, and the be­gin­ning of its com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion.

These high-yield and wa­ter-saving hy­brid wheat va­ri­eties have also been planted in Uzbek­istan, India and the Nether­lands, with sat­is­fac­tory re­sults help­ing to es­tab­lish a hy­brid wheat demon­stra­tion net­work. Hy­brid wheat is a sign of Bei­jing's seed busi­ness “go­ing global” and rep­re­sents its su­pe­rior qual­ity, a ma­jor part of the Belt and Road, lead­ing pros­per­ity in the in­dus­try.

Agri­cul­tural In­no­va­tion

It is not only these tra­di­tional sta­ple foods that are tak­ing cen­tre stage, as China in­tro­duces many fruits and veg­eta­bles through its Belt and Road ef­fort, in­clud­ing cu­cum­bers, toma­toes, pep­pers, cab­bage and cau­li­flower that have helped China deal with its veg­etable de­fi­cien­cies.

Hun­dreds of years may have passed since camels were seen on the Silk Road, but there is still long-term co­op­er­a­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween civil­i­sa­tions, along with shared de­vel­op­ment, and ab­sorb­ing of new el­e­ments. In the midst of all this, what pro­vides sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal sup­port for Bei­jing’s veg­etable bas­ket pro­ject is the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences, a lead­ing force in veg­etable seed pro­duc­tion and re­search.

In this ef­fort, Jingxin 2 has be­come a top pro­duc­ing area for Chi­nese wa­ter­mel­ons, with a mar­ket share of more than 60 per­cent, while Jingqiu 3 is one of the ma­jor Chi­nese cab­bage va­ri­eties, trans­ported from North to South China, and the only veg­etable va­ri­ety with the plant­ing area of more 666,000 hectares in China. Mean­while, the Jinghulu se­ries of zuc­chini has put an end to the long-term mo­nop­oly of for­eign com­pa­nies in China’s zuc­chini mar­ket, and dried pep­pers have be­come China’s first hy­brid export of dried pepper va­ri­eties.

When the op­er­a­tion of these small seeds are taken to­gether, the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences has been a pi­o­neer, lead­ing the cap­i­tal’s agri­cul­ture along the Belt and Road. Its high- qual­ity veg­eta­bles are now recog­nised in many for­eign coun­tries, with cu­cum­ber seeds for Rus­sia, rape seeds for Malaysia, water­melon seeds for Egypt, and Chi­nese cab­bage seeds and other high qual­ity veg­etable seeds for the US, Ja­pan, Pak­istan, Malaysia, Kenya and 13 other coun­tries in re­cent years.

With these Chi­nese seeds planted, agri­cul­tural ser­vices are avail­able si­mul­ta­ne­ously. For ex­am­ple, green­house con­trol de­vices, ir­ri­ga­tion con­trols, agri­cul­tural re­mote sens­ing tech­nolo­gies, agri­cul­tural ex­pert de­vel­op­ment plat­forms and other de­vices have been ex­ported to Is­rael, Canada, the UK and Viet­nam, since 2004. In ad­di­tion, there is long-term tech­ni­cal sup­port avail­able via mail, tele­phone, video con­fer­enc­ing, and Wechat.

The Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences Veg­etable Cen­tre also co­op­er­ates with South Africa in devel­op­ing pel­let seed tech­nol­ogy. This in­volves wrap­ping a spe­cial ma­te­rial around small seeds to in­crease their vol­ume and fa­cil­i­tate mech­a­nised sow­ing while saving seeds and wa­ter.

In a re­lated story, the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences has been hold­ing in­ter­na­tional symposiums on smart agri­cul­ture since 2010, and now has ex­perts from more than 20 coun­tries along the Belt and Road tak­ing part.

In sum­mary, Gao Hua, Com­mu­nist Party sec­re­tary of the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences, said, “As the cap­i­tal’s ma­jor agri­cul­tural and forestry re­search in­sti­tute, the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences shoul­ders re­spon­si­bil­ity in sup­port­ing agri­cul­ture along the Belt and Road area. We plan to make full use of our agri­cul­tural re­search ad­van­tages, in­te­grate re­sources, and con­trib­ute even more to the Belt and Road.”

As Bei­jing con­tin­ues devel­op­ing its na­tional sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion cen­tre and in­ter­na­tional exchange cen­tre, there's no doubt that sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion will play a ma­jor force be­hind Bei­jing’s agri­cul­tural re­forms and de­vel­op­ment. In the fu­ture, more top-qual­ity prod­ucts and tech­nol­ogy will be seen along the Belt and Road re­gion.

Jingkenuo 2000, a breed of corn grown by the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences

A corn­field of the Jingkenuo 2000 breed

Jingkenuo 2000 has be­come pop­u­lar in South­east Asia.

Sep­a­rat­ing corn

Ex­tract­ing DNA from corn sam­ples

Analysing DNA fin­ger­prints from var­i­ous strains of corn

A hy­brid of wheat bred by the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry Sciences

A hy­brid of wheat in an ex­per­i­men­tal field

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