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Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 06:48 GMT
Rice genome data row
Indian paddy-fields (Associated Press)
Rice: 250 patents have been granted
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By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs
A row has broken out over public access to the complete DNA sequence of the rice plant.

Scientists fear there will be restrictions over who can use the data when it is published in an academic journal.

The corporations are leading a charge to privatise the staple crops

Alex Wijeratna, ActionAid
Leading geneticists, including two British Nobel Prize winners, have written to the journal Science to complain.

They claim a multinational company will have control over the most important food crop in the developing world if an alleged publication deal goes ahead.

Dr Michael Ashburner of Cambridge University, UK, is among 20 scientists who have signed the letter. He said DNA information on rice should be freely available to all researchers.

"That information is so fundamental to the exploitation of a food crop that it should not be owned by a single commercial company," he told BBC News Online.

"It should be available for exploitation by anyone who's capable of so doing."

'Unwelcome' precedent

Since the 1980s, scientists have been releasing raw data on the genetic codes of various animals and plants in a public database, known as Genbank.

Everything stored on the database is freely available for all scientists to work on.

There has been one notable exception. In February last year, human genome data gathered by the US biotech company Celera was published in Science.

Under a special arrangement, Celera was able to publish its data without depositing it in Genbank. Some scientists believe the move has set an unwelcome precedent. They are concerned the same thing may happen with rice.

The Swiss-based agrochemicals giant Syngenta announced last year that it had decoded the rice genome. It said it would make the information freely available to all scientists.

Farming fears

Chris Novak of Syngenta said on Monday that the company was still finalising the terms of public access to the rice genome information.

He said he was unable to comment at this stage about any article that might or might not be appear in Science.

"We're committed to sharing the results of our genomics research to further the public interest," he told BBC News Online.

Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner for the development agency ActionAid, said the charity supported the scientists' calls.

He said all the genetic data for the staple food crops should be in the public domain.

"The corporations are leading a charge to privatise the staple crops," Mr Wijeratna told BBC News Online. "There could be serious implications for poor farmers in developing countries."

According to ActionAid, 250 patents in rice have been granted so far. Eleven of these belong to Syngenta.

See also:

26 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Rice genome falls to science
05 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Rice code boosts GM prospects
08 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Genome data access row
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