Rice Genome Called a Crop Breakthrough

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Rice Genome Called a Crop Breakthrough


he sequencing of the genetic code of rice, announced yesterday by two companies, was hailed by experts as a major achievement that could pave the way for improvements in a crop that is the staple food for half the world's population. But at the same time, some said the accomplishment raised concerns that corporations were gaining more control over agricultural research and of the world's food supply.

"One thing people could argue is how can a company own the most important food crop in the world?" said Dr. Rod Wing, director of the Clemson University Genomics Institute, who is participating in a publicly financed rice genome project that is not expected to finish until 2003 at the earliest.

Syngenta, a major agricultural chemical and seed company based in Switzerland, and Myriad Genetics, a biotechnology company in Utah, said they had produced a virtually complete map of the rice genome. While rice is the second plant to have its DNA sequence unraveled, following the Arabidopsis weed, it is the first crop.

Knowing the genes in rice could greatly speed development of improved varieties that have higher yields, can withstand pests, drought or poor soils, or have improved nutrition. And what is learned about the genes in rice is expected to apply to other major crops like wheat and corn that have larger genomes and are harder to sequence.

"The mapping of the rice genome is a major scientific breakthrough because for the first time scientists have been able to unravel the biological inner workings of one of the most important food crops in the world," said Ian Johnson, chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an organization that runs crop improvement laboratories around the world.

But the achievement also comes at a time when many government and academic scientists are concerned that agricultural research, once done mainly by the public sector, is now becoming the province of corporations. They fear research results might not be made widely available, slowing progress. And companies probably won't work much on crops for the developing world, for which there is little profit to be made.

Syngenta, formed by the merger of the divested agricultural businesses of Novartis and AstraZeneca, two European drug companies, said it was willing to collaborate with academic researchers. And for qualified researchers in the third world, the data can be used to develop improved crops free of fees or royalties.

But the companies are not going to put all their genome data in the public domain, as publicly financed genome projects do. Dr. Steven Briggs, head of genomics for Syngenta, said the company's data would be like a copyrighted newspaper article publicly available but not free for people to use as they see fit. And if collaborators make commercial inventions, Syngenta and Myriad "would expect to share in the benefits."

Dr. Briggs said that while the companies would not seek to patent the entire genome the raw sequences in the genetic code they would try to patent individual valuable genes. And he indicated that Syngenta and Myriad were well on their way to finding many of those.

While some scientists welcomed the offer of access, others said it fell short of truly putting the information in the public domain because gaining access could require lengthy negotiations with the company and come with other restrictions.

"You don't have free access just on the spur of the moment to look for a gene," said Dr. Ben Burr, a geneticist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island who is also participating in the public International Rice Genome Sequencing Projects, which involves 11 nations, led by Japan.

Since rice is most important in the developing world, there could be little profit in improved varieties, some experts said. They said the main commercial value for Syngenta and Myriad might come from using rice genes to help find similar genes in crops like wheat and corn that are more important in the United States and Europe.

"The whole concept in the U.S. and U.K. and places where we don't grow rice that much was, if we sequence rice, we've sequenced all the other cereals," Dr. Wing said.

Dr. Pam Ronald, a plant pathologist at the University of California at Davis who found the first disease- resistance gene in rice, said knowing the genes could speed research would "rapidly increase the number of interesting genetically engineered plants we'll see available."

Still, any claim that this could lead to elimination of hunger, as company officials said at a news conference yesterday, is overstated. Farmers have been breeding improved crops for centuries and it hasn't eliminated hunger, which some experts say results mainly because poor people cannot afford to buy food, not that the world does not produce enough of it. Still, in some regions, lack of quantity is a problem that can be helped by improved crops.

Also, it is likely to take some years before the results of the genome sequencing are felt. What the companies have done so far is to determine the sequence of about 430 million letters in the genetic code and make educated guesses as to where in this jumble of letters the genes are themselves.

But work remains to figure out what the genes do and which ones are responsible for desirable traits. The genes must then be put into commercial rice varieties either by genetic engineering or through conventional breeding. David Evans, Syngenta's head of research and technology, said it would be at least four to five years before any improved crops result.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, agreed. "The first five or six years the small farmers won't see much benefit," he said. "But the sooner we start the sooner we'll see benefits."

The companies determined the sequence of the japonica type of rice that is grown mainly in Japan, Korea, parts of China and the United States. It is the type about which most is known and is the same type being worked on by the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project. But many of the findings are expected to apply as well to indica rice, which is the main rice grown in southeast Asia, Dr. Burr said.

Myriad and Syngenta said their genome was 99.5 percent complete. But Dr. Wing said that ultimately the public project would produce the more complete sequence.

-- kevin (ktross@mailcity.com), January 27, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ