Major Plant Institute to Sprout

The pharmaceutical giant Novartis announced today that it will open a $250 million plant genomics institute outside San Diego next year. Novartis Group, a drug, agriculture, and nutrition company based in Switzerland, says the new center will focus on gene discovery and using genomic tools to develop novel seeds, new ways of protecting crops, and veterinary drugs.

The Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute will have 180 researchers and will be housed in a building to open next year adjacent to the company's new pharmaceutical genomics institute (Science, 10 April, p. 193). But the institute--whose work will include building gene libraries, sequencing, and protein studies--will actually start operating in leased space this September, says director Steven Griggs. He says he's "already hiring" and expects to be "near full speed within 3 months," partly through collaborations with universities.

The institute is funded by the Novartis Research Foundation, which will license any new technologies that come out of it. "I doubt we will just be releasing data in a wholesale fashion," Griggs says. But once patents have been applied for, center researchers will publish related papers, he notes: "We'll operate largely in the way universities do."

Some researchers are giving the company's plans a mixed review. A recently announced Novartis project with Clemson University in South Carolina that will make rice and pathogen physical mapping data public is to be lauded, says Susan McCouch, a rice genome researcher at Cornell University. But she says it's frustrating that Novartis, like other major agricultural biotech companies, plans to release plant genome sequence data only after it has scoured it for commercial products. McCouch fears that if companies patent the primary data, then "it's a bit of asphyxiation" for the rest of the plant community, because many research groups can't afford the licensing fees they would have to pay to develop better crops from that genetic data.