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GE - RF ends work on rice biotech, moves to traits research


by Dennis Normile
Science, Vol 286, 19 November 1999

The Rockefeller Foundation is closing the books on an ambitious $100 million
effort to develop and disseminate new molecular tools to improve rice.

PHUKET, THAILAND -- Nobody threw rice. After all, it was the end, not the
beginning, of a relationship. But tossing a few grains would not have been
out of place as rice scientists from around the world gathered* -- perhaps
for the last time -- to celebrate a 15- year effort by The Rockefeller
Foundation linking the revolution in molecular biology to Asia’s most
important food crop and to mark the next phase of the venture. Most of the
nearly 400 who met here recently were trained with Rockefeller money. But
now they’re on their own: The foundation has decided to shift its
agricultural resources to problems facing subsistence farmers, with an
emphasis on traits rather than specific crops and a focus on sub-Saharan

The International Program on Rice Biotechnology has disbursed $100 million
since 1984 to foster cutting-edge genetics research aimed at helping rice
farmers in the developing world. Its legacy: a community of rice researchers
that has created more prolific, robust, and nutritious strains. "The
Rockefeller Foundation rice biotech program is an outstanding example of a
well-planned and -executed funding program.” says Gurdev Kush, principal
plant breeder at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los
Baños, the Philippines. “Other funding agencies could learn a lesson from
[its] success."

Rockefeller already had a track record in agriculture before it began the
rice initiative, beginning with work in China in the 1930s and extending to
IRRI’s creation in 1960. But in the early 1980s, foundation officials began
to worry that the increased yields and improved nutrition promised by the
genetic engineering of plants were not going to be applied to rice. "At that
time, there was essentially no research being conducted in rice molecular
biology outside of Japan," says Gary Toenniessen, deputy director of the
foundation’s Agricultural Science Division. The foundation hoped to reverse
that pattern by enticing leading plant science laboratories in advanced
countries to work with rice, while building up the capacity of developing
countries to carry out biotechnology research and integrate those efforts
into national rice-breeding programs.

The two-pronged strategy was spectacularly successful in attracting the
interest of topflight scientists. The foundation lured 46 labs in the
industrialized world into the program, and by 1987 it was spending nearly $5
million a year on these efforts (see graph). Investment in developing
countries rose almost as fast. Rockefeller began sending promising Asian
scientists to the labs it was supporting in the industrial countries, as
well as putting money selectively into Asian facilities that could support
their work once they returned home. From almost nothing in 1984, the
foundation’s investment in both training and capacity-building grew to
nearly $54 million a year by 1989; it has remained at roughly that level
ever since.

Robert Herdt, Rockefeller’s director of agricultural sciences, ticks off an
impressive list of successes, including rice lines that are tolerant of
high-aluminum soils and the identification and transfer of a gene associated
with resistance to bacterial blight. The program's greatest achievement,
however, has been support for work that incorporated the synthesis pathway
for beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, into rice. Herdt says an
estimated 400 million people dependent on rice suffer vitamin A deficiency,
with its associated vision impairment amid disease susceptibility.

No one had ever transferred several genes into rice at the same time. The
feat was finally accomplished this year by Ingo Potrykus. a plant molecular
biologist at the Institute for Plant Sciences of the Swiss Federal Institute
of Technology in Zurich, and his collaborator Peter Beyer of the Center for
Applied Biosciences at the University of Freiburg in Germany (Science, 13
August, p. 994). “It’s a tour de force,” says James Peacock, a plant
scientist from Black Mountain Laboratories in Canberra, Australia, and vice
chair of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee. “It has
huge potential to reduce one of the [world’s] most prevalent and serious
nutritional deficiencies.” Potrykus says the continued support from the rice
biotech program allowed him to persist despite deep skepticism from
colleagues and that its demise will make it harder to pursue such high-risk
research: “Most funding agencies are very conservative.”

The second leg of Rockefeller’s support for rice biotechnology focused on
graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as training courses for
scientists to learn such skills as transferring genes for specific traits.
“The training is very, very important,” says Qifa Zhang, a plant molecular
biologist at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, China. Zhang notes,
for example, that virtually all the techniques his team is using to
understand what accounts for the increased vigor of hybrid rice plants “were
developed within the framework of the [Rockefeller] program."

Over 400 researchers from developing countries have received some sort of
training under the program, and at some institutes they make up a critical
mass of talent. Of eight senior researchers on the biotech team at the
Philippine Rice Research Institute in Maligaya, for example, five earned
their doctorates with Rockefeller grants and one received a postdoctoral
career development grant for collaborative research with an advanced lab.
“Without the support of The Rockefeller Foundation, it would have been
almost impossible for us to build this capability,” says Leocadio Sebastian,
the institute's deputy director for research.

As the skills of their scientists improve, developing countries have
received an increasing share of program funding. Herdt says that the
proportion going to advanced countries has fallen from 70% in the early
years to 10% currently. International centers and labs in developing
countries now get 60% of the funds, with the rest going for education.

Along with that increased funding came increased expectations, which Asian
scientists appear largely to have met. Herdt says today’s proposals have to
satisfy the same standards as those from the United States and Europe. The
results were obvious at Phuket, Peacock says: “This meeting has been as good
as any scientific meeting we go to."


And success is not confined to the laboratory. Herdt says that Chinese
farmers are already using a disease-resistant rice variety produced using
tissue culture, and other varieties genetically engineered for greater
disease and pest resistance are being tested elsewhere. Several countries
have improved local varieties by augmenting traditional breeding efforts
with such biotech tools as molecular markers, which function as tags for
traits and allow researchers to determine quickly if a target trait has been
picked up by a crossbred plant. On a broader scale, he notes that China,
India, and Korea have integrated biotechnology into their national rice
research programs, and that the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are
moving in that direction. At the same time, Toenniessen admits that
countries like Bangladesh have been unable to profit fully from the program
because of the limited scope of their own research efforts.

The next step for Rockefeller, says Herdt, is “to focus on some of the most
difficult traits and problems that face agriculture in the developing
world.” That chance, part of an overhaul of the foundation's portfolio
triggered by the arrival last year of agricultural ecologist Gordon Conway
as president, puts a premium on "getting those [new] varieties down into
farmers' fields," Herdt says. Instead of concentrating on one crop, the
program will support work on traits, such as drought tolerance, that could
be engineered into a varieties of plants. A final component, he says, will
he “doing something about building capacities in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Educational programs will continue in some form, and much of the work now
going on under the rice program may be eligible for support under the new
guidelines. Strategic work on rice as a crop, however, will be phased out.
Support for the biennial meetings might end, too.

That’s an unhappy prospect for many of the rice researchers. IRRI's Khush
says the linkages among rice researchers nurtured by the biennial meeting
are “one of the payoffs of the program." But Rockefeller believes that it’s
time for the rice biotech community to stand on its own. Herdt hinted that
Rockefeller might be willing to bankroll a future meeting, but he was
adamant that the planning be done by others. Sounding like a proud but stern
parent, Herdt left participants with this message: “If you want to have a
meeting, organize yourselves.”

* General Meeting of the International Program on Rice Biotechnology, 20 to
24 September, Puket, Thailand.