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Seeds of Doubt

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

Blight-resistant rice

It was in this dusty region that a scientist more than 30 years ago collected a sample of O. longistaminata and dropped it in a bag. Not realizing the importance of his find, the researcher carried the sample - along with others - to the Central Rice Research Institute in India.

At that facility, in the mid-1970s, a scientist noticed something curious. When he dipped the leaves of O. longistaminata and other varieties into a solution containing the dreaded bacterial blight disease, the wild Malian rice remained healthy.

Excitement spread rapidly.

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How plants are genetically modified

Click image to see how plants are genetically modified.

By 1978, O. longistaminata was sprouting at the the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, where scientists began trying to find the source of its disease-fighting power. By 1990, they had narrowed the search to a neighborhood of genes, perhaps even a single gene they called Xa21.

Then, Pam Ronald, a young researcher from Cornell University, showed up at IRRI and requested samples of the variety. IRRI sent seeds to Ronald by airmail. For free.

At Cornell, researchers had just completed a map to the vast genetic landscape of rice - its genome. Two years later Ronald took a job at UC Davis, where she continued searching for Xa21. By 1995, she had found it, and she began churning out clones. Soon afterward, the University of California filed a patent application on her clone.

The implications were enormous. Rice is a main dish for a third of the planet's inhabitants, but production is not keeping pace with population growth. If Xa21 could be spliced through crop biotechnology into domestic rice, it could feed future generations. Even more promising, there were signs it might work in maize, millet, sorghum and other crops important in the Third World.

“There was so much excitement,” Ronald recalled.

Like most UC Davis professors, Ronald is a public employee, paid by the state. Her research was partly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which has a mission to help feed poor nations.

But as word of her success spread, the private sector rushed in.

Monsanto and Pioneer negotiated options to license the gene, hoping to turn it into a blockbuster. Monsanto would pursue work on barley and rice, Pioneer on corn.

To the University of California, it was a natural fit. “We are good at basic discovery. We are not good at commercial development,” said Bennett, the technology transfer director.

“It seemed like a good situation,” Ronald agreed. “I was thrilled.”

Sharing the spoils

Ronald's office, near the center of campus, is a reflection of her life. There are long rows of books, a bank of well-organized file cabinets and a rumpled gym bag in a corner. Ronald swims two miles a day and has an athlete's energy and determination.

As the potential of Xa21 became clear, Ronald threw her energy into sharing the spoils with Mali.

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Click image to see a map of Mali and details on Mali's wild rice.

Traditionally, plants have been regarded as a common heritage of mankind, a vast green reservoir tapped for everything from cancer-fighting drugs to high-yielding crops. But biotechnology, with its power to patent genes, has raised concerns that universities and companies in wealthy nations are mining the genetic wealth of poor ones without compensating them - a practice some call “bio-prospecting,” others “bio-piracy.”

Ensuring that developing countries are rewarded for genetic resources was a key provision of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity - a global treaty signed by more than 160 nations.

It was Ronald's mission, too: “It just seemed such common sense.”

But she wasn't sure how to proceed. Using a biotechnology patent to help an impoverished African nation was unprecedented. Ultimately, in a plan approved by UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, the university decided it would award scholarships funded by the gene's expected future corporate profits.

“Education - in all its forms - is the thing we do,” Vanderhoef said. “We felt this was something that certainly couldn't hurt.”

Then something unanticipated happened: Monsanto and Pioneer didn't commercialize the gene.

“They never started any research at all - zero - as far as I can tell,” Ronald said. “One day, businesspeople are in the mood to do one thing. And the next day - something else.”

Monsanto said its priorities did, in fact, change. “It was an interesting technology at the time,” Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said of Xa21 in an e-mail. “Disease resistance isn't something we're focusing on within our pipeline today.”

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Engineered genes rescue papaya crop

A deadly virus threatened Hawaii's papaya industry, so biotech scientists came to the rescue of a key state exports.

The cure, two genetically engineered varieties that fight off the ringspot virus, is among the most lauded commercial successes of biotechnology and an example of how the technology can benefit small farmers and consumers.

“There are a lot of farmers who wouldn't be in agriculture if it weren't for the transgenic (papaya),” said Hawaii grower Delan Perry.

For years, scientists tried using traditional plant breeding to produce papaya resistant to ringspot - with few positive results. Then in 1992, Cornell University and the University of Hawaii started field testing genetically engineered versions that look and taste like their conventional counterparts.

Six years later, after federal approvals, the varieties - one red-fleshed, one yellow-fleshed - were quickly adopted by farmers. Today, roughly half of the state's papaya crop is genetically engineered.

Most farmers' fears about the new technology were overcome by desperation. “It was an easy decision,” Perry said. “The difference between your trees dying and growing was so obvious.”

The modified papaya's success also proved to be its weakness: Production shot up, but without Japanese buyers - the Japanese government still hasn't approved biotech papayas for import - growers have a harder time selling their fruit.

So farmers toggle between growing biotech papaya when the virus is bad and returning to conventional varieties when they think they've beaten the virus, so they can reap the higher prices from Japan.

- Mike Lee


Pioneer said it had better science in-house. "There are a lot of ways to skin a cat," said spokesman Doyle Karr. "We focus on (things) that have the best chance of success."

Legal barriers

One institution remained keenly interested in Xa21 - IRRI, the nonprofit Philippine research center, wanted the cloned gene for its own biotechnology program. The center has a humanitarian goal: "to improve the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers ... particularly those with low incomes."

And Ronald's work, too, had a charitable theme. As a Rockefeller Foundation memo put it: "Rice biotechnology grantees will share materials and technology at zero royalty for use in developing countries. Grantees should not enter into agreements that conflict with this obligation."

Yet when the Philippine center - which had given the rice to Ronald in the first place - asked for a clone of Xa21 back, UC wanted to negotiate.

Although it agreed to provide the gene, UC wanted to make sure IRRI's research did not conflict with the U.S. commercial licenses. "We had legal obligations," said Bennett. "It was a challenging thing - a situation the office had never faced before."

As the haggling dragged on, something else drew Ronald's attention. In year three of the negotiation, she said, the university "put a $10,000 fee in there, after everybody had agreed there would be no charges at all."

Bennett, who had just become director, does not remember a fee. But Rockefeller's Toenniessen does. He called Bennett's office after hearing about it from IRRI. "I talked to a lady who said: 'Our job is to process the agreement and get as much money for the university as we can.' "

As the Xa21 fund foundered, it caught the attention of Gupta - the Indian agricultural specialist - who in 1999 traveled to UC Davis, later visited Mali and wrote his report for the U.N. Environment Program and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

"Pamela deserves credit for what she did," Gupta said. "I greatly admire it. But the community that is conserving the gene - the Bela - does not have children who will ever qualify for scholarships. Scholarships will only help the children of the bureaucrats."

Biotech crop coverage

Gupta maintains UC should make contributions mandatory for all scientists working with genetic material from Third World countries and put the money to work on the ground protecting biological diversity. He also said UC Davis administrators should have consulted with officials in Mali.

Chancellor Vanderhoef said UC Davis was "quite dependent on somebody who understood - or felt they understood - that circumstance," referring to Ronald.

Ronald, though, figures doing something was better than doing nothing. "I am not the kind of person where everything has to be perfect before you go forward," she said. "As soon as you go forward, you are going to get criticism."

Mali's top agricultural official had mixed feelings about UC's work with Xa21, which he knew little about. Though there are no genetically engineered crops grown in Mali, Bino Témé said the country might be able to benefit from the gene's powers.

"To share would be a good thing," Témé said in his office in Mali's capital of Bamako. "But how to share - that should be discussed with stakeholders in Mali."

But Témé also voiced personal reservations about UC's decision to patent the cloned African gene: "I am against this kind of appropriation of a genetic resource."

More patent claims

The patent explosion in plant biotechnology sprang from a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the ownership of novel life forms. Congressional passage of the Bayh-Dole Act that year, allowing universities to patent discoveries from government-funded research, also played a role.

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U.S. Biotech patents

Click image to learn more about U.S. biotech plant patents.

The number of plant-related biotechnology patents issued annually by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has jumped dramatically, from just 16 in 1981 to 289 in 1993 and nearly 2,400 last year, according to CAMBIA, an international biotechnology research center.

Today, there are so many claims on genes and gene technology that getting a new product to market is a nightmare. The most often-cited example is "golden rice" - a biotech variety engineered to produce beta carotene. It is aimed at curing a vitamin-A deficiency that causes blindness in Third World children. Five years ago, research on golden rice was stymied by more than 60 patents. It is not yet in production.

"If there were no patents, I would be happy," said Gurdev Khush, winner of the 1996 World Food Prize and former director of the plant-breeding program at IRRI in the Philippines. "Patents certainly complicate and delay research."

Khush - who received a doctorate from UC Davis in 1960 - knows Mali's wild rice well. He is the one who brought it from India to the Philippines in 1978. It also was Khush who sent the cultivated variety containing the Xa21 gene to Ronald.

Even so, he supports UC's decision to patent Ronald's discovery. "If you don't do it, somebody else might - and exploit it," he said.

Universities, foundations and companies are working to break the patent logjam by forming pools of publicly accessible patents to speed biotech varieties to hungry nations. One effort - the African Agricultural Technology Foundation - is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Many Africans remain skeptical of biotechnology, saying genetically modified agriculture is just another First World help-the-hungry notion that will have little lasting impact - and could hurt more than it helps.

Professor Mamadou Diawara sees biotechnology as too technical, ... Professor Mamadou Diawara sees biotechnology as too technical, saying that Mali faces social and political challenges and needs simple solutions. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

"This could mean another type of dependency," said Mamadou Dia.wara, director of the Center for Research on Local Knowledge in Bamako.

"Biotechnology is a technical solution," Diawara said, and in a country like Mali, technical fixes don't work well. "We have had antibiotics since 1928. But we still have kids dying daily here from very light infections. The challenge is not technical. It is social and political. It is finding simple solutions on the ground."

Hopeful for help

At Mali's rice research center outside Niono, truly simple solutions would help - like those a good plumber could offer. In the main administrative building, the toilets don't flush. No water flows from the taps. On a Tuesday afternoon, the place doesn't bustle - it hibernates.

In his cramped office, microbiologist Soungalo Sarra said he found out about the university's gene fund only last year - while surfing the Internet.

"If you don't know a fund exists, you cannot benefit from it," he said. Still, Sarra is hopeful something might one day germinate.

"Our laboratories are not well-furnished," he said. "We could exchange a lot of information on rice."

The facility's chief of research, Mamadou M'Bare Coulibay, reacted enthusiastically when told details about UC Davis' work with Xa21.

He was eager for information, for communication with UC and something more: He wanted the gene itself.

"The gene was taken from Mali," he said, springing to his feet, leaning over his desk. "It should be returned so we can test it on Malian crops, on Malian land."


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