Rice genome decoded

Will poor farmers benefit from rice progress?

Published: Tuesday 30 April 2002

Imagine, a world without hunger. And rice in India for perhaps less than Rs 2? It is possible only if the idea of social benefit wins over the temptation of big bucks.

Scientists have decoded the rice genome. This means for the first time the wise men have understood and mapped the genetic blueprint of rice, the staple diet for nearly half the population of the world.

Just like human beings have 23 pairs of chromosomes, which determine our genetic makeup, the rice genome is spread across 12 chromosomes. It is made up of 430 million bases of DNA, representing approximately 50,000 genes, making it the second largest genome, after the human genome, to have ever been sequenced and decoded. This means scientists have not only identified the genes but also their functions and how they work.

This breakthrough could lead to genetically engineering the development of better varieties of rice that is both nutritional and resistant to drought and pests. It could also speed research on more complex grains like corn and wheat.

Teams from Syngenta, the Swiss-based biotechnology company, and the Beijing Genomics Institute spearheaded the research. The former worked on "japonica, a rice strain found in arid regions and the latter decoded the genome of the "indica", a variety prevalent in China and other Asian-Pacific countries. Ideally, this information should be shared. But the companies want to control the data and have decided not to make the full genetic sequence of rice accessible to the public. It is feared the new technology could leave poor farmers in the grip of big business.

However, another international genome project based in Japan using research material donated by Sygenta rival, Monsanto Co, is expected to be finished in 2003. This will be freely available to scientists worldwide.

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