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UPDATE: Myriad, Syngenta Beat the Clock to Complete Rice Genome

This story has been updated from a previous version.

NEW YORK, Jan 26 – Myriad Genetics and Switzerland-based Syngenta have completed the sequencing of the rice genome, the second largest fully sequenced set of genetic code behind the human genome, the companies said Friday.

With the public effort to sequence the rice genome still a couple of years behind, the privately-funded effort provides the first look—at least for Syngenta and its collaborators—at the full genetic code of the largest commercial crop in the world.

“This is the agricultural equivalent of the human genome project,” said Steven Briggs, head of genomics at Syngenta.

The two companies employed a battery of high-throughput capillary DNA sequencers, processing about 12 million bases of DNA a day, to complete the project in under a year and a half, said Briggs. The project was six months ahead of schedule, netting Myriad a $3 million cash bonus, according to Myriad president and chief executive officer Peter Meldrum.

Syngenta was formed in 1999 from the merged agricultural divisions of Novartis and AstraZeneca. Earlier that year, Novartis agreed to pay Myriad $33.5 million over two years to study and sequence the genetic structure of cereal crops. The two companies will share equally in the profits from any commercial application of the genome.

In addition to assembling the rice genome, which is more than 99.5 percent complete, Briggs said the data also includes patterns of gene expression correlated with the location of the expressed phenotype. The next step is to apply Myriad’s ProNet proteomics technology to examine protein interactions and connect protein function with specific genes, Briggs said.

After T. Arabidopsis , whose genome was completed in December, rice is the second plant to have its genetic code fully sequenced. The rice genome contains 430 million base pairs of DNA and about 50,000 genes, said Briggs, compared to the 125 million base pairs in the Arabidopsis genome. The human genome contains about 3.1 billion base pairs.

The companies plan to sell access to the code to commercial customers, such as biotechnology and seed companies, but will make the data available to academic researchers free of charge in the form of research collaborations. “We would expect to publish any data needed to support the conclusions,” said Briggs.

“We feel that genomics information and tools are relatively complex, and for them to be applied in a speedy manner it is necessary for plant breeders and biologists to work with genomics experts closely in a collaboration,” Briggs said.

But academic researchers complain that this type of access slows the distribution of important data, and gives the perception that the public effort to sequence the rice genome is no longer relevant. “It’s good for them [Syngenta and Myriad], but it’s not good for the public,” said Rod Wing, a researcher at Clemson involved in the public effort to sequence the genome.

Completing the public project, which would place the data completely in the public domain, may require an additional $80 million to $100 million in funding, and could take until the end of 2004 without access to Syngenta’s data, said Wing. “But we welcome [access to the data],” he said, “it could speed up the public effort by a year or two.”
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