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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 19:29 GMT 20:29 UK
Genome dispute touches rice
Flag, Syngenta
Syngenta wants protection from its competitors
test hello test
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff
It seems genome announcements customarily come with a bit of a row attached - and so it is with rice.

The Swiss-based Syngenta company publishes an analysis of how it cracked the code of the japonica subspecies of the plant in the journal Science this week, but the data themselves will not be going into the publicly searchable GenBank depository.

Cover, Science
The same issues were raised when Celera published its human sequence
Syngenta has refused to put its code in this international data pool because it wants to retain proprietorial control over the fruits of its hard work.

Instead, the data will be dropped in an escrow account controlled by Science and any researchers wanting to mine the code for their own studies will be allowed to do so on a Syngenta website or CD-Rom - provided they accept certain conditions.

Competitive advantage

The editors of Science did not want to do it this way but felt controlled access was better than no access.

It is a similar deal to the one Celera Genomics struck when it published details of its human DNA sequence in Science in 2001.

Syngenta said the deal would give public-sector researchers access to its work while protecting its commercial interests.

"If we were to put our material in GenBank it would be available to our competitors as well as to academicians," a company spokeswoman said.

"The academic community will have access through a CD-Rom... they will have to make a request via their university that they will use it for academic purposes and not commercial purposes."

Not for profit

Of course, not everyone sees it like that. When rumours of the Syngenta deal first started circulating, about 20 prominent geneticists, including two Nobel Prize winners, wrote to Science to complain.

Rice, USDA
Researchers may decide not to work on Syngenta's sequence
Anything other than free and unrestricted access was damaging to the interests of science, they said.

They believe the access arrangements will make it virtually impossible for scientists to do meaningful research on the japonica sequence.

The agreement demands that any academic requiring more than 100,000 bases per day, per week must submit a letter signed by the researcher's institution to the company for approval first. This letter must state that the data will not be used for profit.

Dr Michael Ashburner, a geneticist at Cambridge University, UK, is scathing in his condemnation of the Syngenta deal.

'Public benefit'

"Offering you data in tiddly bits of 100 kb from a 400 Mb genome is stupid," he told BBC News Online. "If you want to know how many genes of a particular class are in the rice genome, you couldn't do it - not unless you sell your soul to Syngenta.

"Doing comparative genomics on the other cereals with this sequence is going to be very difficult. People, if they've got any sense, will either work on the indica sequence (from the Beijing Genomics Institute) or they'll wait for the public sequence to come out of Japan."

Dr Ashburner said Science was being shortsighted and claimed rival journal Nature had now become the magazine of choice for researchers to make their genomic announcements.

But Donald Kennedy, Science's editor-in-chief, said the journal had found a creative way to marry the conflicting interests of private investment and open research.

"From my perspective, the question is whether the public benefit inherent in placing these valuable data into the public domain - rather than in trade-secret status - is greater than the cost associated with having the sequence data accessible through a private site rather than the publicly supported GenBank.

"We thought that was clearly true for the human genome sequence. For rice, the most important agricultural commodity in the developing world, the case is surely even stronger."

The indica sequence produced by the Beijing Genomics Institute and the University of Washington Genome Center has been put in GenBank.

See also:

26 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Rice genome falls to science
13 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Little weed in science landmark
14 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Yellow rice gives dietary boost
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