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Collaborations Monsanto Sequencers Urge Teaming Up with Academics

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When Nancy Miller gave a talk at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference this February extolling the benefits of public/private collaborations to get genomes sequenced, she’d come a long way from the early days of trying to convince her own company, Monsanto, of the same thing.

Barry Goldman, a colleague of Miller’s at Monsanto, says at first the company’s upper management responded to urges to work with academic groups in the interest of completing genome sequences with questions like, “How does this add value to the company?” Goldman says now, though, everybody sees the benefit.

The story begins several years ago, Miller says, when Monsanto decided to sequence a strain of Agrobacteria in its own sequencing facility — and wound up releasing the data about the same time as the University of Washington deposited its own data for the same genome. “Instead of competing against each other,” Miller recalls thinking, “why not team up?” Now, Monsanto and the University of Washington are partners on genome sequencing projects to make better use of their skills and avoid such duplication of effort.

Since then, Monsanto has continued to follow the partnering model, and now works with more than 20 different academic institutions — including the University of Wisconsin and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center — on such projects. Miller and Goldman now lead sequencing efforts on a grant from USDA to sequence Xenorhabdus and work with the University of Washington, the lead institution for another joint grant from NSF for a different strain of Agrobacterium. Those grants run through the end of this year.

There are several reasons to pursue such a model, Miller contends. For one thing, it’s a good way “to perfect our finishing skills,” she says. Goldman calls it “a benchmark”: “If upper management asks us, ‘How do we know you’re as good as what’s out there?’, we can say, ‘Here’s the publication.’”

For another reason, Miller says, these kinds of collaborations can bring to bear resources that smaller communities of researchers might not have had otherwise. The Xenorhabdus research group, she says, is quite small and “these folks probably otherwise wouldn’t have gotten their genome sequenced.” Because Monsanto had an interest in the genome, the data will now benefit everyone.

That’s not to say this was initially an easy sell to the academic side. Goldman remembers that during the first joint project, the public-sector researchers were wary about working with Monsanto, worrying about restrictions that might be put on the data or the company’s refusal to publish the work. To help smooth feathers, the Monsanto researchers started holding monthly conference calls for everyone to check in, give updates, and ask questions. That helped ease concerns, he says — as did the fact that the first genome was finished six months ahead of schedule. Now, Goldman says, he gets phone calls from people in the public sector hoping that Monsanto will want to team up with their genome of interest.

— Meredith Salisbury

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