October 1, 2003
By Winnie Ho
The Aggie News via
now have the ability to insert genetic material from one
organism into another. In the case of agriculture, plants can
receive genes from all kinds of donors - animals and microbes as
well as plants - in hopes of increasing nutritional value and
1. A section of DNA that makes a desired trait must be isolated
from a donor organism. For example, if a microbe produces a
toxin harmful to pests, the gene responsible for the toxin can
be identified and isolated for genetic engineering.
2. The isolated DNA then gets added to a circular ring of
genetic material called a transfer plasmid. The plasmid acts as
a molecular taxicab - ferrying the desired genes from one place
to another. The plasmid gets absorbed by a special bacterium.
3. The bacterium attaches itself to the plant cell, where it
then ejects the plasmid. The plasmid migrates to the plant's
4. At the chromosomes, the gene for the new trait becomes
permanently integrated into the plant's DNA.
5. The modified plant cells are placed into a cell culture to
multiply. All new cells contain the new genetic information from
the donor organism.
6. The bioengineered cells are then grown in a special culture
that causes them to develop into recognizable plants.
7. The plants are transferred to soil and are now genetically
modified patentable organisms.
In a move to combat world food-shortage issues and support
specialty crop farmers, PIPRA — the
Property Resource for Agriculture — was launched this
summer. It is an initiative that involves major U.S.
agricultural universities, including
UC Davis, with the goal of
making patented technologies more accessible to researchers
developing new crops.
The premise of the initiative is that current intellectual
property rights in agricultural biotechnology cause obstacles to
the distribution of improved staple crops for humanitarian
purposes in the developing world and specialty crops in the
developed world. PIPRA would establish a new paradigm in the
management of intellectual property to alleviate this situation.
”The problem is that there has been a huge growth in patenting
in the last 20 years, but not a lot of thought into how to
manage them,” said Alan Bennett, executive director of the UC
Office of Technology Transfer and contributing author to PIPRA.
Golden Rice is an oft-cited example of the current situation in
intellectual property rights. In 1999, Golden Rice was
engineered with the help of bacterial and daffodil genes. Its
proponents argue that it could alleviate the crippling symptoms
associated with vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries.
To create the rice, however, researchers had to employ dozens of
genes and techniques that had been developed and patented by
other companies, with the result that much time and effort was
spent negotiating royalty payments upon commercialization of the
rice — a difficult proposition in the resource-poor countries
for which the rice was intended.
PIPRA would strive for more efficient access to intellectual
property information, and encourage smarter licensing practices,
making it easier for researchers to tap current and future
inventions when developing specialty crops, or crops for
”It’s an admirable idea,” said Calvin Qualset, professor
emeritus of Agriculture and Range Sciences and director emeritus
of the Genetic Resources Conservation Program. “I like it.”
While most agricultural patents — with the exception of those on
strawberries — don’t generate a lot of revenue for the
university which owns them, Bennett said that they are necessary
to provide sufficient motivation for developing new crops and to
Despite being touted by many as a daring new management approach
to speedily deliver agricultural biotechnology to small
subsistence farmers, doubts remain as to the worth of such an
Renata Brillinger, the campaign coordinator for Californians for
GE-Free Agriculture, argued that corporate control of
agricultural life-forms actually limits people from growing
their own food. As in the Golden Rice example, the existing
system in which farmers are required to pay user fees for the
engineered product is not feasible in poor, developing nations.
”Any system that purports to alleviate hunger in this way is
fundamentally flawed,” said Brillinger.
She expressed concerns about the inadequacy of long-term studies
on ecological and health ramifications of biotechnology, and
explained that plenty of opportunities exist in natural plant
Qualset, however, said that anything that will make technology
more accessible would be welcome. There are two steps to helping
resource-poor farmers: the research — the development of crops
and genes — and the implementation — getting the technology to
the people. It is the implementation which PIPRA helps to
He is unconcerned that PIPRA might draw the ire of biotechnology
critics. Comparing identical chromosomes from different
organisms, Qualset stated that all genes are in fact very
”Biology is often mixed with social concerns in such cases,” he
While gene transfer in bioengineered crops may carry
environmental risks, Judith Kjelstrom, acting director of the
UCD biotechnology program, said that bioengineered crops must
pass stringent regulations, and that traditional crossbreeding
can carry risks as well.
”The consensus of scientific opinion and evidence is that foods
and feeds derived from biotechnology pose no new or unusual
dangers to the environment or human health,” she said, citing
studies on the safety of molecular techniques.
In the meantime, the institutions involved in the launch of
PIPRA, including UC Riverside and the Rockefeller Foundation,
are working to create a database which will provide an overview
of licensing in the public sector, allowing researchers
centralized access to such information and to simplify the
detection of possible intellectual property obstacles. It is a
step toward PIPRA’s avowed purpose to help public institutions
to fulfill their mission in contributing to public well-being.