New Partnerships for Biology and Business

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Science  18 Dec 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5397, pp. 2160
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5397.2160

Futurists predict that in the 21st century, biotechnology will outgrow its academic roots and become a key commercial technology, much as electronics did during this century. In 1998 researchers began to realize just how fast the marriage between biology and industry is taking place—and how turbulent the transition is likely to be. This year company researchers pushed the pace in everything from genomics to cell biology, and in case after case, the advances left publicly funded scientists wondering whether they can compete in areas that were once their exclusive province.

The clash between public funders and industry was painfully obvious last month, when company-sponsored researchers announced the cultivation of “human embryonic stem cells,” which can develop into many different tissues in the body (see p. 2161). The U.S. Congress has banned the use of federal funds for such work, which uses cells derived from human embryos, so scientists can't use public grants to explore this research arena.

A public/private schism also split the human genome community this year. In May, gene sequencing pioneer J. Craig Venter announced that he was teaming up with a company that sells gene-sequencing machines to sequence the entire human genome by 2001–4 years ahead of the government's timetable. And he promised to do it for just $300 million, a fraction of the cost of the government's $3 billion Human Genome Project. Three months later another firm upped the pace, promising to finish the sequence in a mere 2 years. Faced with showing up to the party after all the guests had left, Human Genome Project leaders agreed in September to turbocharge their efforts and polish off a “working draft” of the genome by 2001.

Publicly funded plant genome researchers face even stiffer competition from corporate research. In September, the U.S. National Science Foundation awarded the first grants in its new $40 million plant genome initiative; the U.S. government now spends roughly $70 million a year on plant genomics. But giant multinational companies have already set up even larger crop gene sequencing efforts. In just one deal announced late last year, Monsanto and Millennium Pharmaceuticals agreed to spend up to $218 million over 5 years to form a new agricultural genomics company.

Finally, pharmaceutical firms worldwide continue to industrialize biotech. For example, over the last decade academic labs have pioneered fast new methods for generating and screening novel drugs. Companies have spent billions improving the methods, buying start-up firms, and building high-speed drug labs, again leaving academic researchers with no way to keep pace in a field they founded.

Although ethicists argue that the tremendous power of the new biology cries out for extra care in commercialization, industrialization of novel technologies is nothing new. During this century, the chemical and electronics industries grew from scattered research programs to become global giants, and companies have gradually become the main employer of Ph.D.s in those fields. Yet publicly funded research has remained vigorous, as academic scientists find new problems and often invent the next wave of technology along the way. With the coming of the biotech century, it will be biologists' turn to reinvent themselves.



Incyte Pharmaceuticals

NIH's Human Genome Project


E. Marshall and E. Pennisi, “Hubris and the Human Genome,” Science 280, 994 (15 May 1998).

E. Marshall, “NIH to Produce ‘Working Draft’ of the Genome by 2001,” Science 281, 1774 (18 September 1998).

E. Marshall, “A Second Private Genome Project,” Science 281, 1121 (21 August 1998).

E. Pennisi, “A Bonanza for Plant Genomics,” Science 282, 652 (23 October 1998).

R. Service, “Chemical Industry Rushes Towards Greener Pastures,” Science 282, 608 (23 October 1998).

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