By Mark D. Uehling
May 7, 2002 | On April 5, the rice was done early: Science published two drafts on Oryza sativa, the grain that keeps half of mankind alive. One paper, from the Swiss agribusiness firm Syngenta, described the japonica subspecies. Another, from the Beijing Genomics Institute, covered the indica subspecies, the major strain grown in China. The only surprise: the news media yawned. Sequencing the first crop in history barely made the front page of The New York Times.
For many experts, the sequencing of the rice genome could prove to have more societal and scientific ramifications than finishing the human map. “Over the next 20 years, the rice genome will make more of a difference to global health than the human genome we published a year ago,” said Donald Kennedy, editor of Science.
Even now, the rice sequence arrives with a key advantage: decades of knowledge about the traits of various strains of the plant. Lines of rice able to germinate in cold, wet soil can now be examined for the genes responsible, which can be bred into rice or other crops. The combination of genomic tools and conventional breeding will expedite the pace of rice research in ways that scientists working on human diseases can only dream about. “We can create crosses that don’t exist anywhere in the world today,” says Steven Briggs, head of genomics at Syngenta. “This is plant breeding by design. It has never been done before.”
The only sour note was criticism of the publication process. For some researchers, Science has set a precedent of not enforcing its own influential rules. The journal’s official policy is that any species’ sequenced genome must be deposited in a public database like GenBank. That rule has now been suspended in two noteworthy cases: Homo sapiens (which Celera published in February 2001) and now O. sativa. Rice deserved its exemption, Kennedy said, for urgent humanitarian reasons: his journal’s stamp of approval would get the new rice sequence into the hands of more scientists and help them prepare to feed the 80 million people born every year worldwide.
Scientists like Michael Ashburner, group leader of the genetics department at Cambridge University, disagreed. He argues that anything short of full public access could endanger publicly funded sequencing research and encourage corporate sponsors of genome research to withhold their data.
But reaction among the rice sequencers has generally been positive. In Science, the director-general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines greeted the new genomes warmly. The Syngenta and Beijing groups have vowed to help with the major group-funded effort to sequence the crop, the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project (IRGSP).
By the end of the year, the IRGSP rendering of rice will be sent to GenBank, but so far it’s only 56 percent complete. Ultimately, it will be more precise and scientifically useful than the two draft genomes announced in Science. The Beijing and Syngenta teams, 92 percent and 93 percent finished respectively, used the faster “shotgun” approach. The IRGSP, in contrast, is using the more methodical “whole genome” method preferred by academia and government.
With rice, the nonprofit sector is of central importance; nonprofit, not industry, does the bulk of research and seed production. For whatever reason--altruism or a desire for good publicity--Syngenta maintains it has no interest in profiting from rice genes. The company is offering the rice genome to academic and governmental scientists at no charge, both online and on CD-ROM. By coincidence, the most important crop has the shortest genome of any major cereal grain, just 420 to 466 million base pairs. That is one-seventh the size of the corn genome and one-ninetieth the size of wheat.
Philanthropy aside, Syngenta readily acknowledges the real money on rice will be made indirectly, from better versions of other grains. The company has compiled a virtual genetic supermap comprised of known genes in every major crop. Syngenta is already using that map to create better lines of corn and wheat. To hear Steven Briggs of Syngenta tell it, the research is farther along than competitors might suspect. The next news could be just a few years away, when hardier, more nutritious rice (or corn, or wheat) is brought to market and a dinner table near you.