Underground Genome Project Pleases Rice Researchers

Rice research got a boost earlier this week when the biotech company Monsanto announced that it is 2 weeks away from finishing a rough draft of the genome for rice, a crop that feeds half the world's population. For many, the fact that the St. Louis-based company was even working on the rice genome came as a big surprise, as does Monsanto's intent to make the data available to a publicly funded international consortium.

The accomplishment could mean the complete sequence of the rice genome will be finished years earlier than expected. That will be a boon to a wide variety of plant biologists, who expect that the rice genome will help them understand the much larger genomes of corn, wheat, and other cereals and who can now request to use the Monsanto data while waiting for the completed genome.

The rice genome consists of about 430 million base pairs. The working draft aligns short stretches of DNA sequences from the 12 rice chromosomes. Although incomplete, the working draft pinpoints some 50,000 genes and about 25,000 gene fragments, says molecular biologist Gregory Mahairas of the University of Washington, Seattle, who with Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, sequenced the rice genome for Monsanto. Rice is the first crop whose genome has reached the working draft stage, and its genome is the largest sequenced to date. (The recently completed Drosophila genome is about 180 million bases long.)

In February, Monsanto approached the leaders of a 10-member consortium, called the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, which is working on completing the rice genome by 2008, to discuss terms of a possible collaboration. In May or June, Monsanto will make the data available to the consortium. Until then, rice researchers are cautiously optimistic about the utility of this draft. "Until we see the data it's hard to predict," says Mary Clutter of the National Science Foundation, which helps support rice sequencing in the United States, "but if it's as [good] as reported, that's fantastic." Monsanto refused to comment on whether it has patented any parts of the rice genome.