Two Companies Sequence Rice Genome

Syngenta International AG announced today that it and collaborative partner Myriad Genetics Inc. have mapped the rice genome, an advancement Syngenta claims will make crops more resistant to pests and disease.

It is "an immensely exciting enterprise with huge implications," David Evans, head of Syngenta research and technology, told journalists in a conference call.

He said the findings were significant not only for rice, but also for other important crops.

"We can make them more abundant, change the constitution to make them more nutritious, [and get] higher yields," Evans said, adding the advance also would have benefits for the food processing industry.

It will also lead to new ways to protect crops from pests and diseases, he said.

Five-Year Wait

Evans told journalists that it will be five years before the first revenues from new seeds that will be produced as a result of the new rice genome developments.

A genome contains the basic information that makes up living organisms encoded in chromosomes made up of double-stranded chains of DNA. The rice genome was discovered after tests at Torrey Mesa Research Institute in California.

Syngenta spokesman Juerg Eberle said earlier that it is the first time a genome has been mapped for a commercial food crop. The rice genome is the second-largest genome sequenced, after the human genome, he said.

"Because of the similarity between different cereal crop plants, the information derived from rice will contribute to the study of other important cereals such as wheat [and] corn, and lead to their future improvement," Eberle said.

The discovery will not have an immediate impact on Syngenta's business. But Eberle said the news confirmed that Syngenta was on the right track with its focus on research.

Eric Bernhardt, a fund manager at Swiss-based Clariden Bank, said the rice genome development was also good news for Syngenta's partner, Myriad. Clariden's Biotech Equity Fund has a stake in Myriad.

Myriad, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, began in 1991 as a start-up with venture capital, and discovered gene BRCA1, which causes breast cancer, in 1994.

Attractive Work for Researchers

"It shows the value of their [Myriad's] underlying technology platform. It just shows that maybe they don't have the same publicity as other genomics companies, but that doesn't mean they are not doing interesting work," Bernhardt said.

U.S. scientist Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics, made history last year by completing a program to sequence the human genome before a government group did so.

Rice is one of the key food crops attracting research from genetic scientists involved in the costly process of mapping genomes.

Syngenta's Eberle said it will use the rice genomics data for new commercial applications in agribusiness. Information will also be made available to the academic community, he said.

He said subsistence farmers in developing countries who grow crops for their own use would receive the information free. In addition, Syngenta will make the information available to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.