SAN DIEGO—It is a rare scientist at Mycogen Corp. who makes it through the day without checking a small, hand-scribbled sign posted in the main hallway of the startup’s laboratory. The unassuming notice lists the bid, ask, and closing prices of Mycogen’s over-the-counter stock—and everyone in the company owns stock. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of money riding on what those numbers do every day” says Kathryn Nette, director of fermentation for the young company.

So far the sign suggests, to paraphrase the old adage, that a closely watched stock never rises. But the scientists still have every reason to hope that they are sitting on a gold mine. Mycogen is one of the most promising of a handful of new startups conceived to apply recombinant genetics techniques to the protection of agricultural crops. Though less well-publicized—and often less well-funded—than their pharmaceutical counterparts of a...

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