Swiss non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have expressed concerns that the agrochemical company, Syngenta, may try to patent the genetic code of rice, following the firm's announcement that it had succeeded in unravelling the genome.
The Swiss aid organisation, the Declaration of Berne, said although the Basel-based company had made the breakthrough, it would be wrong to claim ownership of the genome.
A genome contains the basic information that makes up living organisms, encoded in chromosomes made up of double-stranded chains of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
"We believe the rice genome, like the human genome, has to be in the public domain," said Declaration of Berne spokesman, Francois Meienberg.
"It is not possible that a company owns even a part of a genome, because it didn't invent it," Meienberg said. "It is part of nature."
The NGO has expressed fears that mapping the genome of humans or plants could lead to attempts to alter the genetic make-up of organisms and entail ecological as well as socio-economic risks.
However, Steve Briggs, director of TMRI, played down the patent issue: "We're definitely not going to try to patent the rice genome. We will be doing functional studies on the genes to find ones that could be useful for breeding or crop protection, and in those cases, where we make an invention, we'll seek patent protection."
Announcing its "groundbreaking discovery" on Friday, Syngenta said it was likely to have a global impact on improved food and crop production.
It said that because rice was a model for other cereals, the knowledge gained from the rice genome map could be expected to lead to improvements in other food crops, such as wheat and corn.
Syngenta said it planned to use the rice genomics data for new commercial applications in agribusiness. But it added that it would collaborate with the academic community, allowing researchers and plant breeders to apply the data to advanced breeding methods.