Race to design pigs that live on grass: Companies cash in on genetic research

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IN THE laboratories of Newcastle University, scientists are trying to create a vegetarian pig, genetically engineered so it can eat grass. They are also trying to patent their pig, which joins a growing list of animal 'inventions' over which scientists and commercial companies are claiming ownership.

Newcastle hopes to market its work because pigs that eat grass should be cheaper and more convenient to farm. The aim is to insert a gene from bacteria into the animal to make it produce a digestive enzyme to break down cellulose in grass, which ordinary pigs cannot do.

Environmental groups are becoming increasingly concerned at the pace of commercialisation ofsuch work, and want a full public debate of the validity of patenting life-forms, particularly the ethics of 'ownership' of living things.

Corporations investing in biotechnology, and some universities, argue that patents are necessary to help them recoup the tens ofmillions of dollars needed to develop the commercial potential of research.

Gene transfer now knows few boundaries. Genetic engineers can slot human genes into other animals, fish genes into plants. Already they have produced crops that resist pests, disease and frost, stay fresh longer and taste sweeter. Other scientists are working on livestock that is easier and cheaper to manage, such as disease-resistant farm animals with leaner meat.

Sheep, rabbits and mice have become biological factories - with genes that make them prone to cancer, or turn to them into living models for

diseases such as Alzheimer's and Aids.

Margaret Mellon, from theUnion of Concerned Scientists in the US, said of the new animal inventors: 'These people are bored. Some of these animals are ridiculous, in a hungry world where companies could do a lot with research yet are thinking in the narrowest possible way.' At least 200 patents are waiting in the wings:

In food:

Tomatoes with a gene from the winter flounder fish that makes them frost-resistant. Produced by DNA Plant Technologies.

Virus-resistant alfalfa, peanuts, cucumbers, potatoes and tomatoes from Pioneer HiBred, Asgrow Seed, Monsanto, Washington University. Herbicide-tolerant soybean and tomatoes from Calgene, Monsanto, Agracetus. Insect- resistant apples, cabbage and mustard from Pioneer Hibred, Mycogen, and Ciba-Geigy.

The 'Euromelon' which has an extended shelf-life. Its plants produce high quality fruit, ripened on demand, according to researchers on the joint project involving France, Britain, Spain and Greece.

Safeway is funding engineering of lettuces to produce individualserving-size heads.

ESCAgenetics is working on genetically altered coffee with better flavour, yields, lower caffeine and pest resistance.

McDonald's and DuPont are working on celery andcarrots engineered by selection to stay crisp 'even in pre-cut packaged form' for Vegisnacks.

Monsanto and two American universities are working on chips with less fat from potatoes with an extra gene taken from intestinal bacteria. This gives them higher starch content, so they absorb less water when fried.

In healthcare:

Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Granada Biosciences in Texas have applied for a patent on the production of valuable proteins in milk,

covering all engineered mammals, including humans. The application - which raises the concept of a patented woman engineered to produce drugs in her breasts - is unlikely to succeed.

Researchers in Britain have applied for a patent on mice engineered to be prone tothrombosis and diseased heart muscle.

Patent applications for altered mice include animals engineered tomodel diseases such as Alzheimer's and Aids. Others have been modified to be susceptible to conditions such as muscular dystrophy.

US patents have been granted on three: a mouse developed by a Harvard scientist whose males develop enlarged prostate glands, mimicking a disorder that is found in men over 35; a mouse from Genpharm altered so that it cannot develop a normal immune system, and a mouse from Ohio University with an extra human gene that produces beta-interferon, a protein that attacks viruses and can prevent infection.

Pharmaceutical Proteins, an Edinburgh-based company, has developed sheep that produce useful proteins in their milk, such as blood-clotting factor IX and a drug for treating emphysema, the lung disorder.

Upjohn has created a 'hairless' mouse for use in testing hair restorers in its research on a cure for baldness. This was refused a patent last year by the EPO, which wants the company to prove it is a true invention.

The University of California has applied for a patent on animals with defective cancer-suppressing genes for testing the carcinogenicity of tobacco and food additives.

In agriculture:

Agracetus has a patent on all genetically-engineered varieties of cotton, including those modified to tolerate herbicide, to produce warmer, finer, stronger or wrinkle-free fibres, or even blue bolls of interest to the denim industry.

The National Institutes of Health in the US has applied for a patent on the use of chicken cancer genes to increase muscle-cell production for meatier livestock. The patent suggests its use in pigs, turkeys, sheep, ducks, cows, catfish and trout.

Merck in the US has applied for patents on animals modified so they respond to a specific growth-promoting drug produced by the company.