The rice genome must be made available to all

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The importance of rice for the future of humanity is not to be underestimated. It is the most important crop in the developing world and, as we report today, half the world's people rely on rice to provide about 80 per cent of their dietary needs. With most of the growth in the global population in the developing world, rice will become even more important as the staple crop to feed an increasingly hungry world.

The importance of rice for the future of humanity is not to be underestimated. It is the most important crop in the developing world and, as we report today, half the world's people rely on rice to provide about 80 per cent of their dietary needs. With most of the growth in the global population in the developing world, rice will become even more important as the staple crop to feed an increasingly hungry world.

Deciphering the rice genome – the genetic recipe of the plant and its nutritious seed – therefore represents a major scientific achievement. Donald Kennedy, the editor of the journal Science, goes as far as to say that the rice genome will prove to be even more important than the human genome, itself lauded as the greatest technological advance since the invention of the wheel.

Preliminary estimates of the size of the rice genome range between 45,000 and 56,000 genes. Somewhere in this genetic information are the signposts that will lead us to higher-yielding varieties, better tolerance to drought or salinity, increased resistance to pests or improved nutritional content. The rice genome will prove to be invaluable for agriculturalists who want to reverse the alarming slowdown in rice production witnessed over the past decade.

But rice is more than just this. The genetics of this plant are viewed as a model for other important cereal crops, such as maize, barley, oats and wheat. Understanding the genetic instructions that enable rice to grow will provide much-needed insight into the healthy development of the other staple crops on which we all depend.

In a perfect world, this information would be shared freely for the common good. However, concerns have been aroused by plans to put the genome of one rice variety on to a database controlled by a multinational agrochemicals company. Many scientists believe this breaks the spirit of openness that is a hallmark of scientific publication.

The company, Syngenta, has promised free access to the data to any academic scientist not working for a commercial competitor. It is at least an attempt to meet these concerns and is certainly better than making the rice genome a trade secret.

Rice and the food we eat are too important to be left solely in the hands of private organisations wielding control over who has access to the information. The unravelling of the rice genome is to be applauded, and its open publication even more so.

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