A private company whose credo, according to its co-Presidents, DavidFischhoff & Mark Trusheim, is "work hard, have fun, kick butt", seems tohave decided to take a softer approach. It will be giving away valuableagricultural genetic data to the public research community, through aunique public-private agreement between the The Arabidopsis InformationResource (TAIR), funded by the US National Science Foundation, and thecompany - the American plant research partnership, Cereon Genomics.
The number of markers in the Arabidopsis genome has been more than doubledby the agreement, in which Cereon gives access to 37 000 polymorphisms -highly useful for gene mapping. "Realistically a quarter of these couldprove to be good markers - say 10 000. And currently we have only 4 000markers" said Mike Bevan of the John Innes Institute, Norwich, England, whois closely involved in the public Arabidposis genome sequencing project."This is a major step" in research into Arabidopsis, said Bevan.
And if it's a major step for Arabidopisis, it is for agricultural scienceas a whole. The plant's genome is small (around 130 Mbases) on fivechromosomes; and the plant itself is small and grows quickly, making it the"mouse" of agricultural genetics. Many of the genes found in Arabidopsishave homologues in other plants. According to Cereon's stated goals "genesinvolved in the induction of pest resistance in Arabidopsis and crop plantsshare certain common features. Finding such genes first in Arabidopsis willgreatly facilitate their subsequent identification and use in improvingcrop plants such as corn, soybeans, cotton, and potatoes."
By this release Cereon may hope to accelerate agricultural research beyondthe company's own capabilities. Genomic and post-genomic (function-finding)research will involve hundreds of thousands of experments, and one companysurely could not manage them all. Morever it will keep a close eye on whatresearchers do with its data. Scientists wishing to use its on-linedatabase must first "click" assent to a lengthy agreement, which forexample allows the publication of no more than 20 of its polymorphisms at atime, and disclaims all liability in case of misuse. "There are only twopeople at John Innes who could legally assent to these terms" said Bevan,potentially causing an immense bottleneck.
In practice, what may well happen elsewhere is that individual scientistswill click assent to get to the data quickly, although they have no legalright to do so. In case of future dispute, the status of such "contracts"will form an interesting point in law. "It would be much better to havecompletley free access" Bevan says.
Cereon Genomics was created in November 1997 as a five-year alliancebetween Monsanto Company and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, "to apply genomicstechnologies to the discovery and development of plant and agriculturalproducts". Cereon says its strategic goal is to identify genes that willimprove crops by increasing yield, improving crop tolerance to pests andconditions such as drought, and enhancing the nutritional value of food andfeed.