Hogging Biotech Jobs

Photo: Keith Weller Advances in plant and animal genomics promise to open thousands of new life science jobs in agriculture when the industry clears regulatory and cultural obstacles. With the potential to generate billions of dollars in economic activity, these advances are expected to trigger an increased demand for life scientists and researchers not only trained in classical laboratory techniques, but also skilled in bioinformatics and sequencing. "Bioinformatics will be a major career ar

Sep 2, 2002
Ted Agres
Photo: Keith Weller

Advances in plant and animal genomics promise to open thousands of new life science jobs in agriculture when the industry clears regulatory and cultural obstacles. With the potential to generate billions of dollars in economic activity, these advances are expected to trigger an increased demand for life scientists and researchers not only trained in classical laboratory techniques, but also skilled in bioinformatics and sequencing.

"Bioinformatics will be a major career area" for plant and animal genomics, says Caird Rexroad, acting associate administrator of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). "Folks in both public and private sectors are lining up to do some level of sequencing on most of the livestock genomes," he says. "So we'll continue to need people who understand data and how to mine it and how to put it into patterns that can match physiological and biochemical data."

But the commercial promise of agricultural genomics remains unfulfilled. Regulatory concerns over genetically modified organisms have dampened development. Major livestock producers are only now beginning to embrace new technologies. "It's going to be a gradual growing into these markets," predicts Roger Wyse, a managing director of Burrill & Co., a San Francisco-based venture capital firm that invests in agricultural biotech. "These products need to be pulled into the market by market demand, and that takes a while to develop."

In the meantime, the agricultural biotechs that are developing the new technologies depend on life scientists and bioinformaticians with sequencing backgrounds. "Job opportunities are in doing good, strong fundamental science in animal genomics," Wyse adds. "People coming into this category ought to think about doing fundamental genomics science, and their skill sets will have applications in a number of sectors." Desirable experience includes sequencing, gene mapping, gene regulation, and comparative genomics. "All those things are crosses between agriculture and human genomics," Wyse says.

HOGS CAN BE CASH TOO While commercial applications are still several years away, advances in plant and animal genomics promise broad applications. Crops and animals can be engineered to grow faster and supply more nutrients. Plants can be developed as sources of therapeutics, biomaterials, energy, and feedstocks for the chemical industry. Wyse comments, "These are all trillion-dollar markets. If you can get 10% to 20% of them, that's real money."

Most of the major plant producers, including Des Moines, Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Monsanto of St. Louis, are using functional genomics to improve crop yield and to bioengineer resistance to insects, fungi, and harsh environment.1 Other companies are experimenting with transgenic plants to produce therapeutic proteins and to manufacture vaccines against infectious diseases. "We've just scratched the surface of what we can do with our plant products," Rexroad says.

ProLinia, a biotech startup in Athens, Ga., has licensed nuclear transfer techniques from Geron to clone cattle and hogs with favorable characteristics for consumers. The goal is to upgrade the genetics of breed stock for large-scale livestock companies like Smithfield Foods, an investor and the world's largest hog producer. "Genetics plays a critical role in the ultimate quality of the meat we eat," says Steve Stice, ProLinia's chief scientific officer and a pioneering cloning researcher at the University of Georgia.2

In April, a research team at the University of Georgia helped the company produce a calf cloned from an Angus Hereford cow's cells. Scientists took genetic material from the kidney area of the carcass about two days after the cow had been butchered in a meat packing plant. This technology, when commercialized, will allow a producer to select the best beef on the packing line, and use its genes to develop and improve the herd, predicts Mike Wanner, ProLinina president. "We'd also like to study protein expression from cell cultures that we've grown from different cell lines having mainly to do with reproduction," Wanner says. "We will need scientists who have these skills, but even further out, we'll need management-level scientists who can develop and lead projects, translating them into business models."

Photo: Scott Bauer

BETTER CATTLE THROUGH SNPs ProLinia has signed a deal with another agricultural biotech startup, MetaMorphix of Savage, Md. In June, MetaMorphix acquired rights to Celera's cattle genome database of approximately 600,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Ed Quattlebaum, MetaMorphix president and chief executive, says the company plans to mine the database for use by cattle breeders. Minneapolis-based Cargill, a large beef and pork producer, has already signed on.

Taking a different tack, Chicago-based Pyxis Genomics (formerly AniGenics), identifies the genetic markers and underlying genes influencing animal productivity, health, and food quality. "The good news is that anyone who is skilled in DNA and molecular biology will be very qualified for this because DNA is DNA, whether from cattle, pigs, humans, or mice," says Steve Niemi, director of comparative medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and former AniGenics chief executive.

The biotech industry is becoming increasingly concerned about a shortage of trained scientists across the board, says Brent Erickson, vice president of industrial and environmental affairs at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. As biotech "expands into new industries, such as animal and plant genomics, it becomes even more of a concern because the application in those instances is more crosscutting," he says. "So what you really need are people with biology degrees, MBAs, degrees in engineering, chemistry, or botany."

Ted Agres (tagres@lycos.com) is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

References
1. P. Brickley, "Payday for US plant scientists," The Scientist, 16[2]:22, Jan. 21, 2002.

2. R. Lewis, "Porcine possibilities" The Scientist, 14[20]:1, Oct. 16, 2000.