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Monsanto Announces Advances in Rice

April 4, 2000

BEIJING (AP) _ Researchers working for biotech giant Monsanto announced Tuesday that they have created a rough draft of the genetic makeup of rice _ a development that could lead to better quality, higher yield crops to feed more people.

A laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle, working on contract for St. Louis-based Monsanto, used a gene sequencing technique to largely decipher the genetic code for rice.

To help speed work on completing the code, Monsanto says it will give the data to the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, a 10-country consortium.

The advance is expected to enable scientists to engineer rice strains resistant to drought, salinity and insects. The results will form the basis for study of crops like corn, sorghum and wheat, said Leroy Hood, head of the laboratory where the research was done.

Hood spoke at a news conference in Beijing via a video link from Seattle.

``When we decipher the rice genome, we will have the equivalent of an encyclopedia that contains the instructions for creating a life form,″ Hood said, likening the current level of progress to an encyclopedia with ``occasional words misspelled or occasional words deleted.″

``It is the beginning of being able to engineer rice plants that have higher yields, have greater food quality, that are more protected against drought and against insects,″ Hood said.

While the consortium has finished sequencing 3 or 4 percent of the rice genome, Monsanto has now very broadly mapped the overall genome, said Gerard Barry, a Monsanto researcher in St. Louis.

Mary Lou Guerinot, professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., said the work represents ``a very significant development″ and will help speed efforts to sequence the entire rice genome.

``Rice is such an important crop,″ she said. ``Over half the world’s people eat rice every day.″

The work comes as farmers in industrialized countries, reacting to consumer resistance, are cutting back on acreage sown with genetically engineered crops.

Bioengineered foods are created by splicing genes from the DNA of one organism and inserting it into another organism’s genes. Such techniques have raised worries that genetically modified organisms could harm humans and animals, and may cause other vegetation to mutate or create other ecological damage.

The companies that are developing the genetically engineered seeds _ Monsanto, DuPont, Aventis, Novartis and AstraZeneca _ insist they are safe.

In developing countries like China, which supports a fifth of the world’s population with only 7 percent of the world’s arable land, the need to ensure that food production keeps pace with population growth has tended to outweigh worries about potential risks from genetically modified crops.

``This technology is very important for food security, especially in China, India and Africa,″ said Chen Zhangliang, vice president of Peking University and head of the college’s Pioneer Lab.

Rice is the world’s most common staple food and China is the world’s largest rice producer. In 1999, it harvested 200.7 million tons out of a global rice harvest of 588.7 million tons.

Chinese scientists at the Beijing news conference said the Monsanto research could, in four to five years, enable Chinese farmers to plant crops with much higher yields.

They applauded the company’s decision to provide data obtained through private research to the public domain.

``This will make a great contribution to our own research,″ said Chen. ``This will save us huge amounts of money and huge amounts of time.″

Monsanto officials would not say how much money the company spent on the rice genome project.

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