Firm defends deal to keep rice DNA secret

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A multinational company and a leading scientific journal have defended a deal allowing the firm to keep control of the DNA sequence of rice, the world's most important crop.

Syngenta, a Swiss-based agrochemicals company, will announce next week in Science that it has completed the sequence. The journal has allowed the firm to keep the details on its company website rather than deposit them in a public databank.

Donald Kennedy, the editor, said he would have preferred to have had the sequence published openly – the usual rule in scientific research – but had to accept that the information was too commercially sensitive.

"The choice here is, do you want the data out there where scientists can use it or do you want it to stay as trade-secret status?" Dr Kennedy said.

"They [Syngenta] could not have submitted it to GenBank [the public database] because of the absence of copyright protection. We think we've given the science community the best of both worlds," he said.

Twenty geneticists, including the Nobel laureates Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Aaron Klug, have written to Dr Kennedy to complain. However, Steven Briggs, head of genomics at Syngenta's Torrey Mesa institute, promised that publicly-funded academics would be allowed unrestricted access to the DNA sequences of the rice genes. Commercial companies would need a licence, he said.

Syngenta spent about $30m (£21m) sequencing the genome of the Japonica strain of rice. Chinese scientists have sequenced the Indica strain, which will also be published in next week's Science. By contrast, the Chinese team is depositing the details of its work in the public databank.