Soenke Zehle on Sun, 31 Mar 2002 03:51:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> [BIO-IPR] Geneticists steamed over access to the rice genome

Add'l commentary on the "public domain" of core food crops I mentioned in
the last mail.

The attempt to introduce "philanthropic" biotech projects - I.e., Monsanto
and Co. would "give away" the seed/modified germplasm for free to feed the
world - like Golden Rice (high-yield plus Vitamin A) has been one of the
biotech industry's most successful PR-coups to boost the image of biotech
and respond to fears that IPR will hurt the poor.

Needless to say, biotech-fortification is not the way to address
malnutrition and vitamin deficiency, for a host of reasons. But as it turns
out, the rush toward comprehensive proprietarization of biological material
(see below) would render even such acts of calculated corporate benevolence
(PR or not) virtually impossible, since they would infringe on a multitude
of IPRs.


BIO-IPR docserver

TITLE: Geneticists get steamed up over public access to rice genome
AUTHOR: Declan Butler
PUBLICATION: Nature, Vol 416, pp 111-112
DATE: 14 March 2002
SOURCE: SciDev.Net


Yesterday, the news came out (below) that Syngenta, one of the world's top
seed and agrichemical companies, may be withholding its map of the rice
genome from a public database while Science magazine publishes the data in a
way that allows Syngenta to have full commercial control over it.

NGOs and farmers' groups which examined IPR issues surrounding the mapping
of the rice genome last year already came to the conclusion that the public
interest is threatened by manouevres of the private sector in this area.
(See This is because both
Monsanto and Syngenta had made it clear that any sharing of "their" rice
genome data would be for research purposes only. This means that when you
access their data, you recognise their IPRs to any commercial applications.
Which is why the corporations are even publishing it. They reveal a partial
map to get researchers to use their data for research. And by doing that,
researchers cede control of the commercial outputs to the corporations.

We do not agree that this is a "better than nothing" situation, as IRRI --
the world's premier "public" rice research agency, which wants to access the
data -- persists in seeing it. That smacks of opportunism and evades the
entire problem. The bottom line is that the rice genome should not be
subject to claims of intellectual property -- whether the information is for
research or for commercial use. The rice plant is not an invention and
should not be patented like a handgun -- to hold up other people who want to
do research or to save seeds. The diversity of rice, its tremendous genetic
wealth down to every fragment that a biotechnologist can break it into, that
did not come from Syngenta or Monsanto or from IRRI for that matter.

True public research institutes have a duty to serve the public good. That
does not include filling the pockets of chemical companies by caving in to
their terms of how science should be conducted. The accountability of public
research is under tremendous stress all over the world today. Hiding from
the problem by saying "This is how the private sector wants it and we need
them" is not a solution. The solution lies in keeping firm to the ground of
what public science is supposed to stand for -- and fighting for that.
Privatisation of the rice genome -- the blueprint of our most important food
crop -- has no place in that picture.

(*) Prepared by GRAIN together with various colleagues working on these
issues in Asia.


Nature 416, 111-112 (2002)


Declan Butler

Twenty top genome researchers have written to the editorial advisers of
Science protesting at the way the journal occasionally publishes genome maps
without requiring the authors to place the supporting sequence data in
public databases.

The letter is signed by such luminaries as Bob Waterston, head of genetics
at Washington University in St Louis, Nobel laureate Aaron Klug of the MRC
Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and Michael Ashburner,
former head of the European Bioinformatics Institute at Hinxton near
Cambridge. In it they argue that new genome sequences should be made
available in public-domain databases in line with what they term "accepted
norms of the field".

"There are strong rumours in the field that Science is considering allowing
the publication of papers from commercial companies on the rice and mouse
genomes, without demanding the submission of the data in GenBank as a
condition," their letter says.

Several sources confirm that Science intends to publish a paper by the
Swiss-based agricultural biotechnology company Syngenta on its draft of the
rice genome. The supporting sequence data will not be deposited in GenBank,
the sources say, but will be available free to academic researchers from
Syngenta's website, subject to certain restrictions.

Science drew criticism last year when it agreed to publish the draft human
genome assembled by Celera Genomics of Rockville, Maryland, despite the
company's restrictions on access to the sequence data.

Donald Kennedy, Science's editor-in-chief, declines to comment on the
pending paper. "Science is committed to full public access," he says. "But
we will consider rare exceptions if the public benefits of removing valuable
data and results from trade-secret status clearly exceed the costs to the
scientific community of the precedent the exception might create. This was
true for the human genome sequence, and for the most important agricultural
commodity in the Third World, the case is surely even stronger."

According to several researchers, Science also plans to publish a draft
sequence of Oryza sativa L. ssp. indica, the major crop rice cultivar in
China, alongside the Syngenta genome. This second rice genome was completed
recently by a team led by Huanming Yang, director of the Beijing Genomics
Institute, and the supporting sequence data have been deposited in GenBank.

A draft sequence of the rice genome by the agricultural biotechnology
company Monsanto, based in St Louis, Missouri, and one by Celera of the
mouse genome, are also under preparation, but have not yet been scheduled
for publication in any journal.

Syngenta currently makes its data available to a handful of academic groups
through special agreements. The publication of Syngenta's rice genome in
Science might result in changes to the company's policy, giving more
researchers access to the sequence data. But, as the letter demonstrates,
researchers remain deeply divided over the terms of such access. "This goes
to the heart of what science is all about, the free exchange of ideas, data
and reagents," says Bruce Stillman, director of the Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory in New York state. Science should not compromise on making the
data freely available, he says.

But Ron Cantrell, director of the International Rice Research Institute in
the Philippines, is more supportive of Science's decision to publish. "You
have to ask the question 'is it better not to have any access at all?'," he
says, adding that, in his experience, Syngenta and Monsanto have "been very
forthcoming" in collaborations with the public sector.

Chris Novak, a spokesman for Syngenta, says that the company hopes to work
with the publicly funded International Rice Genome Sequencing Project
(IRGSP). The project intends to produce a 'finished' high-quality sequence,
as opposed to the drafts, containing many gaps, that are about to be

Researchers point out that Science's agreement with Syngenta is not entirely
analogous to the one it reached last year with Celera on the human genome.
Celera contributed no data to the public Human Genome Project, instead
relying on data from the public project to complete its own sequence. In
contrast, Syngenta has already contributed significant mapping data to the
IRGSP, through a collaboration with Clemson University in South Carolina.

But Syngenta has so far refused to share its raw sequence data with all of
the public group -- unlike its rival Monsanto, whose contributions of
sequence data are credited with strongly accelerating the public project.

In January, however, Syngenta began talks with the IRGSP and, according to
one IRGSP official, has agreed in principle to match the Monsanto agreement.
If it does, "all the Syngenta and Monsanto data will be in the public domain
by the end of the year", says the official. The likelihood of this happening
might be a factor in persuading Science to accept restrictions on the rice
data for the time being, observers suggest.

Nature  Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2002



Steve Connor, "Geneticists protest at DNA of rice becoming a trade secret",
The Independent, London, 18 March 2002.

Helen Briggs, "Rice genome data row", BBC News Online, 18 March 2002.

Newsletter from the transnational corporations observatory
Monday, 25 March 2002

Fears over rice genome access: Prominent gene researchers fear that access
to the complete DNA sequence of rice, the world's most important food crop,
will be restricted when it is published in a scientific journal. The rice
sequence was completed by Syngenta...

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