Geneticists protest at DNA of rice becoming a trade secret

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Twenty leading geneticists are protesting against a deal that will allow a multinational company to control who has access to the complete DNA sequence of the rice genome – the most important food crop in the developing world.

The scientists, who include British Nobel laureates Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Aaron Klug, are up in arms against a plan to lock away the entire rice sequence on a company database rather than having it published in the open scientific literature.

They have written to the editorial board of Science to complain of an alleged deal between the journal and a Swiss-based agrochemicals company, Syngenta, which wants to store the rice genome on its commercial database. "If this is so, then it represents a very serious threat to genomics research," they write.

Syngenta announced last year that it had completed a draft map of the rice genome and now wanted to publish the finished map in Science and so claim the scientific priority that comes with publication in a prestige journal.

However, Science and Syngenta are understood to have come to an agreement that allows the company to retain the raw data – effectively the detailed DNA sequence of the rice plant – so it can store the information on a commercial database that the company will have control over.

The letter to Science is signed by some of the most prominent specialists in the field of genetics, such as Bob Waterston of Washington University in St Louis; David Botstein of Stanford University in California; Michael Ashburner of Cambridge University, and Sir John Sulston of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge. They say that a similar deal last year, which allowed the biotechnology company Celera to store its sequence of the human genome on its private database rather than having it published in a publicly-available biotechnology database called "GenBank", was highly damaging to the open tradition of science.

"At that time we, and many other colleagues, expressed dismay at this action, because of the absolute necessity for genomic research of having all of the public sequence data available from one place," the scientists write.

"We are happy to share with you now the arguments then made, and they remain as valid now as then, as to why deposition of sequence data in GenBank is so important for the scientific community at large," they say.

The authors of the letter have urged the editorial board of Science, which includes Sir Bob May, president of the Royal Society, to change the journal's policy "and bring it in line with the accepted norms of the field".

Sir Aaron said the Syngenta plan went against the ethos of scientific research. "It's to do with the ethics of publication. The tradition is to publish and to tell the world. If you do not publish then you cannot claim the credit," Sir Aaron said.

Chris Novak, of Syngenta, said the company could not comment on the paper submitted to Science until it is published. "We've made a commitment to sharing the genomic information at least with the public research projects but there is more than one way of getting the information into the public domain," he said.

Donald Kennedy, editor of Science, said the journal is also committed to full public access to scientific data. "But we will consider rare exceptions if the public benefits of removing valuable data and results from trade-secret status clearly exceed the costs to the scientific community of the precedent the exception might create," Dr Kennedy said.