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Seeds of Doubt

Mali's people reap no reward from cloned wild-rice gene

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Cowpeas just won't cooperate

Kim Carney has never tasted black-eyed peas, but working with them in the laboratory is tough enough to give a scientist a stomachache.

A staff research associate in the University of California, Davis, Plant Transformation Facility, Carney has tried for two years to genetically engineer the little legume, with the goal of feeding hungry African people. The pea won't cooperate.

Its cells either don't take up foreign DNA, or, if they do, those cells don't grow into a new plant.

Carney isn't the first person to be thwarted this way. George Bruening, the UC Davis plant pathologist overseeing the project, figures that scientists collectively have spent the equivalent of 20 to 30 years of one person's life trying to transform the pea. For reasons probably related to their physiology, legumes are notoriously hard to engineer.

Nevertheless, one of the most abundantly grown genetically engineered crops is a legume - the soybean. That was hard, too, but numerous companies threw their efforts into it because the soybean is a hugely valuable commodity. The black-eyed pea is not.

Unlike soy, it doesn't appear in foods all over the map. The crop is most important to poor countries of western and central Africa, where it's known as the cowpea. It's a good source of protein in a place where other forms of protein are too costly or hard to come by, according to Bruening.

Here's the problem: A caterpillar called Maruca vitrata drills holes into the pods and gobbles up the precious peas. Chemical insecticides easily kill the pod-borers, but African subsistence farmers typically can't afford the chemicals, Bruening said. Hence, an attempt to engineer black-eyed peas to produce their own insecticide.

The U.S. Agency for International Development gave Bruening $400,000 to work on the pea for two years. The grant is nearly spent, with no success in sight. Unwilling to give up, the professor is scouting for more money.

Carney, who keeps modifying his lab technique in hopes of a breakthrough, figures it will be 10 years, at a minimum, to get a useful engineered pea into the ground in Africa. But he and his boss, lab manager David Tricoli, say there's satisfaction in the project because of its noble aims.

“The cowpea is very special,” Tricoli said. “We feel very good about it.”

- Edie Lau


Private property

Biotechnology didn't invent genetic tinkering. All farming springs from it. Corn was once a wild grass in Mexico. Generations of careful plant breeding have brought a cornucopia of choice to store shelves: sweeter onions, seedless grapes, monster melons. But biotechnology works in ways nature does not.

It shuffles genes - tiny biological units that shape life - between species. It imagines a world of frost-resistant tomatoes, drought-tolerant corn, even crops that grow medicines. But so far, most of its magic is tied to two genes, each tailored to U.S. industrial farming: One transfers resistance to the weedkiller Roundup into a crop, making farming easier; the other allows a plant to kill certain insects.

Something else sets biotechnology apart from other farming revolutions: Much of its promise is private property.

No longer do universities routinely make discoveries available, for free, to poor nations - as they did during the Green Revolution. Today, most universities typically patent them first, then license the technology to private companies. The idea is to speed discoveries to market and, as public funding declines, generate money for research.

But there's a downside. What was once owned by all - plant and animal DNA, the building blocks of life - is now the property of a few.

“Three-fourths of new biotechnology products, including those originally made possible by publicly supported research, are controlled by the private sector,” said Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation - one of the world's largest nongovernment sources of agricultural research for developing nations - in a speech last year.

Statewide, the University of California holds 125 agricultural biotechnology patents - more than any other university system. Its portfolio includes patents that could help strawberries, lettuce and other California crops resist disease and insects, reducing pesticide use.

But few of those innovations are close to commercialization, in part because of conflicts with other patent holders, mostly corporations. “The system was primed for much greater potential than what we have seen in the field,” said Gregory Graff, a research economist at UC Berkeley.

Last year, nine colleges, including UC Davis, formed an initiative to break the impasse by licensing technology more carefully and sharing more discoveries among universities. UC Davis recently was selected to be the national clearinghouse for the effort.

Some are calling for stronger measures. “The patent law did not come down with the Ten Commandments,” said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group. “If it doesn't work, we need to rethink it.”

Unexpected turns

When UC Davis filed for a patent on the cloned disease-resistant African rice gene in 1995, it saw an opportunity for financial reward and public service. Money was expected to flow to the school from corporate coffers for research and other purposes. Ronald, for example, has received about $825,000 from Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International for work on the rice gene in her laboratory.

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Biotech terms

UC Davis, in turn, was to sow benefits globally. To work such a miracle, the university had a world of options: It could send Ronald to Africa. It could invest in wild-rice conservation programs in Mali. It could tap school funds and bring a Mali researcher to campus. Instead, it chose to earmark corporate revenue - the money it anticipated making from licensing the cloned gene to the private sector - to set up a scholarship fund for Mali students.

The idea was to use the university's strong suit, its agricultural know-how, to improve the lives of the world's poor through rice. Rice is one of the planet's critical crops, a staple for nearly 2 billion people, many of them impoverished. But up to half of the global rice harvest is lost to disease - a loss UC Davis wanted to stem.

Microbiologist Soungalo Sarra inspects wild rice near Niono, Mali. Microbiologist Soungalo Sarra inspects wild rice near Niono, Mali. The plant has intrigued scientists around the world because of its gene that fights off blight-causing bacteria. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

“This was a big scientific deal at the time,” said Gary Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs at the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped fund the work. “It turned out to be an extremely valuable gene in rice - and may be valuable in other cereals as well.”

Subsequent years were filled with unexpected turns. Monsanto and Pioneer, which signed options to license the gene, lost interest. Hope for the hungry took a detour when UC's Office of Technology Transfer, which manages the rights to use university inventions, spent three years negotiating an agreement with a nonprofit research facility serving Third World farmers - the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Ronald was infuriated. “This drove me absolutely crazy,” she said.

“I agree with her frustrations,” said Alan Bennett, director of the technology transfer office. “It took a long time - longer than I would have liked.”

Nonetheless, Ronald remains a patent partisan. The Mali gene, known as Xa21, she says, may still one day boost crop harvests and yield dividends for the university and for developing nations. Without patents, she said, “all the profits go to the companies.”


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