The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) is boosting its support for plant bioinformatics through a new project termed the Rice Genome Simulator, slated to start in April. The project, which is expected to run for seven years, aims at the development of a simulation environment for rice breeding and will receive 1.34 billion yen ($11.6 million) in funding in 2001.
Although MAFF has supported rice genetics for almost a decade through the rice genome project — an initiative also run by the National Institute of Agrobiological Resources (NIAR) and the Society for Techno-innovation of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries — this is the first significant plant bioinformatics initiative at the ministry.
The $11.6 million earmarked for the project is relatively substantial. Total funding for the rice genome project is $42 million.
When completed, the Rice Genome Simulator will offer a software environment that will “enable scientists to simulate in silico the results of crossing between one rice variety and a different one,” said Kenichi Higo, director of the department of molecular genetics at NIAR and the project’s scientific director. “In this project, we will try to develop a breeding simulation system for specific genetic traits for which we have isolated causative genes. Initially, we will focus on a limited number of rice varieties.”
Critics of the project say this is overly ambitious, especially given the relatively poor state of plant bioinformatics in Japan. But insiders point out that the project’s ambitious goals are reflective of budget politics in Japan, where items need to be approved on a one-by-one basis by the finance ministry. “It is fairly common to overstate the goals of a project in order to get it approved by the finance ministry,” said one observer. “What seems to have happened here is that MAFF wanted to have a bioinformatics project and this is what they came up with [in order to get approval].”
According to MAFF officials, some $3 million of the project’s initial funding will be spent on leasing a server system, while another $6 million is expected to be paid out in grants for developing software components and databases. It is expected that these development projects would be outsourced to companies and academic groups. MAFF does not currently support a dedicated bioinformatics staff.
The project’s computer system will be solicited through an open call for proposals this spring. Ministry officials openly conceded that they were hoping for a bid from Compaq, which also has supplied computing equipment to NIAR and the Japanese rice genome project. Compaq has recently boosted its position in the Japanese bioinformatics market through a preferred supplier relationship with Takara Shuzo’s genomics subsidiary, Dragon Genomics, the largest commercial sequencing facility in Asia.
Although some two dozen computer and software companies showed up at a kick-off meeting for the project earlier this year, there has been little response from Japanese food processing and plant biotechnology companies. While some say this is a reflection of the broad and overly ambitious objectives of the project, others argue that it isn’t really surprising in light of the minimal level of involvement by Japanese industry in the rice genome project to date.