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2-Plants: Private initiative in the US to sequence the rice genome



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TITLE:  Private initiative in the US to sequence the rice genome
SOURCE: Nature, Vol. 398
DATE:   April 15, 1999

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Last week's news of a newly launched private initiative in the United States to sequence the entire rice genome in only six weeks has sent shock waves through the plant genomics community. It has prompted Japanese researchers engaged in the international Rice Genome Sequencing Project to consider a significant revision of their tenyear initiative planned for completion in 2008. No doubt those involved in the publicly funded effort are experiencing déjà vu. The private sequencing project, to be carried out by Celera Genomics, the company established by the genome researcher J. Craig Venter, has created a situation very similar to that last year, when he announced plans to sequence the complete human genome, in direct competition with the efforts of researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust and elsewhere.

Japanese researchers are now having to come to terms with what they consider is a major challenge to their own rice genome project. Venter plans to create a commercial database containing sequence data of the 430megabase genome (see page 545). Despite general scepticism over Celera's proposed sixweek timescale, the effect of the news has been instantaneous. In a matter of days, Japanese researchers had drawn up plans to accelerate their sequencing effort, including a request for increased funding to purchase DNA sequencers. Researchers realize the urgent need to reaffirm and speed up the publicly funded project, which has so far taken a sluggish path despite rapidly intensifying competition in plant genome research from the private sector. Limited sequencing ability caused by lack of funds is partly to blame for the slow progress of the sequencing effort. Researchers also blame the government for being slow to acknowledge the importance of genome research. As a result, Japan h!
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as made a slow start in this sphere of activity, while the United States, prompted by scientists at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere (including Venter), enthusiastically embraced such research as a national strategy.

The challenges arising from Venter's initiative will also be an opportunity for the Japanese government to revise its policy on genomerelated research. After years of urgent calls from Japanese researchers to promote genome research more energetically on a national level, the government will introduce a new programme this year to promote the commercial application of biotechnology research, particularly in genomics, by increasing funds for basic research and creating public databases of genomic information. But this is scratching the surface by international standards. Japan is far behind the United States and Europe in genome research, and urgently needs to boost not only sequencing capacity and other basic research but also the environment in which research and commerce can jointly thrive. Venture capital needs more encouragement, but the government should also promote rather than, as at present, discourage collaboration between public and private sectors. Japanese researche!
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rs themselves would do well to view commercial collaboration more positively than they do now.

Venter's approach will give him a lead in identifying sequences with technological potential. Whether that will in turn result in an appropriate balance between the right to profit from such information and the needs of the world's population is quite another matter, which now requires discussion all the more urgently. But there is nothing to stop publicly funded genome sequencing projects from making their accumulating sequences available to all. Given the obvious commercial and political interests in the sequence for rice, which is the principal food of half of the world's population, the quicker this happens, the better. Rice genome partners are Japan, the United States, the European Union, China and South Korea.

(see also GENET-news Jan 26, 1999: 7-Misc: President of TIGR/US predicted to build new life form within a decade)




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