Rice Genome and Beyond
At the beginning of April many of the secrets at the heart of one of the world's most important cereal crops were revealed. The Swiss company, Syngenta, and the Beijing Genomics Institute in China both published their draft versions of the rice genome in the scientific press. By the end of the year, a fuller and virtually complete version will be published by a publicly-funded consortium supported by many governments. Why is this event of such significance? From my perspective, as a scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the publication of the rice genome raises several points of significance, not least for plant breeding, for issues of ownership and for agricultural science in general.
Foremost is the opportunity that genetics or, more properly genomics, brings to plant breeding. An analogy that I like to use is that unravelling the genetic code is equivalent to producing a dictionary of words minus their definition. Of course knowing what the words are is important but what use are they without their meaning? Genomics is the understanding of the function of the genes - the meaning of the words and their significance. The publication of the genome sequence is, therefore, just the beginning of much exciting work ahead to understand the function of each of these genes, and how they work together to give a better adapted plant. With greater understanding will come greater efficiency and quicker success in plant breeding.
But who will own this understanding? Popular belief has chosen to fear that it will be locked away within the laboratories of trans national companies to be used exclusively for profit, and with consequences that are detrimental to farmers in developing countries who will be unable to compete. Although there is ground for such concerns, it is not an inevitable consequence of private investment in agriculture. My own view is that this can be avoided provided that there is adequate support to sustain a healthy and competitive public research system. The availability of the Syngenta sequence for academic use illustrates the point: public investment must be well and strong to leverage private sector contribution and to ensure that the knowledge and tools are accessible for applications that will benefit the poor. There is huge scope for publicly funded institutions to work on the challenges in plant breeding that commercial companies would find less financially rewarding. Issues such as drought or salt tolerance, and enhancing grain nutrition come to mind. At IRRI, we welcome the availability of the rice genome and look forward to contributing to the scientific advances it will bring to the poor rice farmers whom we are committed to serve. Furthermore, public and private institutions need each other. Remember that the genetic resources, upon which all plant breeding ultimately depends, lie within publicly-funded institutions within the developing countries. We must strive to achieve a collaborative environment in which we can apply scientific innovations from both public and private sectors to serve the poor. Whether we are from a private or a public institution, we shall only win if we share.
And what a wonderful opportunity the science of genomics brings to agriculture. I remember, as a teenager growing up in Hong Kong, how all my friends wanted to become medical doctors or engineers. They assumed my interest in agriculture was because I wanted to be a farmer, an unlikely career for a city dweller. You can understand why today's children, growing up in an urban setting, have little appreciation of agriculture. But I believe that the public's interest, created by such events as the publication of the rice genome and the vitamin A-rich "golden" rice, will help to make agricultural science more attractive to young students and scientists. If we can attract the best minds, that, by itself, would go a long way in helping to improve food production.