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Syngenta decision divides opinion

The rice genome could hold the key to greater rice crops in developing countries

(Keystone Archive)

The decision by the Swiss biotech firm, Syngenta, to make public its rice genome research has met with mixed reactions from NGOs and other research bodies.

The data - mainly in the form of a map of the genome - can now be accessed by academic institutions, non-profit organisations and governments around the world, via the company's website.

However, the research will not be made available to international public databases, such as GenBank. Instead, certain data access fees will apply when commercial interests are involved or Syngenta's competitors want to use the information.

Data restriction

Francois Meienberg from the Bern Declaration, a Swiss NGO promoting fair trade and sustainable development, condemned any restriction on data access.

"The Bern Declaration opposes any restriction on the rice genome," he told swissinfo. "This is because free access to the genome and all information relating to it is so important for the development of new rice varieties and important for food security world wide."

He added that Syngenta had no "right to patent" the rice genome, since it was the property of all mankind.

"In patent law you can protect inventions but not discoveries," he said. "For me, a rice genome - even when it's isolated - is very clearly only a discovery."

Meienberg warned that restricting access to the data would "hinder any further research on the same subject". He said this would cause problems for any scientist working on food or biotechnology issues.

Commercial interests

Syngenta defended its decision to attach certain access conditions to the data on its website, saying it was merely protecting its commercial interests.

In an interview with swissinfo, Rainer von Mielecki, head of communications at Syngenta, stressed that the information was available to "academics and farmers in developing countries free of cost".

However, researchers seeking to use the data for commercial purposes would have to negotiate with the company, he said.

"As a private business we want to maintain our commercial rights," explained von Mielecki.

Rice genome

The information on the rice genome is expected to pave the way for the addition of nutrients to rice and similar crops, like corn and wheat, which have evolved from wild grasses.

It could also be used to improve the resistance of crops to drought and pests - both of which are among the main causes of food shortages in less developed countries.

Publication of the rice genome data comes two years after one of Syngenta's competitors, Monsanto, opened its research on rice to the public.

Scientific researchers have so far completed a rough guide to the rice genome. A detailed map of the genome could take a further 18 months of study, according to Steven Briggs, who heads Syngenta's San Diego-based Torrey Mesa Research Institute.

Field tests on the new data are to begin this summer.

by Sally Mules and Samantha Tonkin

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