News of the WeekRICE GENOME

Syngenta Finishes, Consortium Goes On

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Science  02 Feb 2001:
Vol. 291, Issue 5505, pp. 807
DOI: 10.1126/science.291.5505.807A

A Swiss-based agrochemical company has completed sequencing the genome of the first important food crop, rice. But scientists who want the data will either have to pay for the right to use it or wait 3 years until an international consortium completes its work on a publicly sponsored—and likely more thorough—version of the same project.

Last week, Syngenta AG of Basel, Switzerland, announced that it had sequenced the majority of the 430 million bases of the rice genome. The work was overseen by its scientists in California and carried out mainly by Myriad Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City, Utah. The project took 14 months, 6 months faster than planned, and came in under budget, although the company won't divulge the total cost. The results outpace the efforts of the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, led by Japan, which hopes to finish its work in 2004 at an estimated cost of $100 million.

“On a technical level, they should be very proud,” says Rob Martienssen of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, a member of the international consortium. “Their coverage is very good, and it's certainly a lot of sequence, but it's still very far from a complete sequence.” The Syngenta project sequenced each nucleotide an average of six times. To assure a complete, continuous sequence without gaps, however, each nucleotide needs to be sequenced 10 or 12 times.

In December, plant geneticists announced the complete genome sequence of the first higher plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, the model organism of choice for basic plant research but with no commercial value. In contrast, says Steven Briggs, head of the Torrey Mesa Research Institute in California—the genomics research arm of Syngenta—knowing the rice genome should allow scientists not only to improve rice varieties but also to find similar genes expressed in related cash crops such as wheat and barley.

The Syngenta rice map “will not be in the public domain,” says Briggs. Instead, Syngenta will provide academic researchers access through scientific collaborations, in return for a share of any commercial inventions stemming from the research. Syngenta also says that it will provide information and technology to the developing world for improving subsistence farming. But Martienssen says the value of Syngenta's work is diminished by its relative inaccessibility: “If it's not really a general public resource, and if it can't be searched, it doesn't have the same impact.”

Syngenta has worked with the public rice consortium before, funding work to sequence the ends of the bacterial artificial chromosomes used as the primary template for sequencing. And it's not the only commercial player. Last April, Monsanto finished its own rough draft of the rice genome, which has 4 coverage, and made its data available to the international project.

Getting access to the Monsanto data has allowed the international project to advance its estimated completion date by 4 years. And Japanese members leading the effort on chromosome 1 (of 12) plan to announce their results in March. Takuji Sasaki, director of Japan's rice genome research program, hopes to find ways to accelerate the sequencing but says “it will take additional funding.” Adds Martienssen, “We shouldn't sacrifice accuracy or completeness just to speed up.”

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