Mali's people reap no reward from biotech (7/6/2004)


EXCERPTS: There was talk of future health clinics and conservation programs, even using the gene to battle hunger and poverty in other corners of the world.

Eight years later, no help whatsoever has arrived. The Genetic Resources Recognition Fund that UC Davis officials hoped would turn university patents and corporate profit into a model of social responsibility has a balance of zero.

When informed that university officials half a world away in California owned a part of their culture, a gene from their rice - and were licensing it to biotechnology corporations - the Bela were puzzled, even angry.

Seeds of Doubt: Mali's people reap no reward from cloned wild-rice gene
By Tom Knudson -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published June 6, 2004)
First of five parts

KEREDJI MOLLA, MALI -- Overhead, the sun hangs like a heat lamp, searing an African landscape the color of toast. Patches of sandy soil that yielded green shoots of millet and wild rice last fall now swirl with dust.

Near a well ringed by thirsty livestock, a crowd of men and boys has gathered. There is time to talk. It's been a tough year.

"Many here have died from hunger, infections and malaria," says Mihdi Ag Mohamed, a herder who lives in this ramshackle settlement of mud and grass huts west of the fabled city of Timbuktu. "Poverty is extreme."

In June 1996, the University of California, Davis, began an unprecedented effort to help the West African nation of Mali, using the promising and controversial new tool of agricultural biotechnology.

With money earned cloning and patenting a gene from a hardy species of wild rice native to Mali, UC Davis would give something back - first, scholarships for Mali students and later, disease-resistant rice to help feed the impoverished country. There was talk of future health clinics and conservation programs, even using the gene to battle hunger and poverty in other corners of the world.

Eight years later, no help whatsoever has arrived. The Genetic Resources Recognition Fund that UC Davis officials hoped would turn university patents and corporate profit into a model of social responsibility has a balance of zero.

In the hopes that inspired the effort - and the missteps that stifled it - lies a drama larger than the sum of its parts, one that shows both the promise and pitfalls of the largest technological leap in American agriculture since the tractor: biotechnology.

Born a generation ago, partly in California laboratories and farm fields, biotechnology promised a banquet of benefits: It would bring more choice to consumers, pose no environmental threat to organic and conventional farmers, create little or no regulatory burden for government and, most tantalizingly, help feed the world's hungry.

So far - like UC Davis' effort to aid Mali - biotechnology has not delivered.

Consumer wariness and environmental opposition have slowed its progress, of course. Government regulations are convoluted.

But other problems are home-grown. In moving from public to private ownership of genes and gene technology, universities got snarled in a patent system so complex and conflict-prone it has slowed the flow of innovations from their labs. In licensing their discoveries to industry, universities have turned over the fruits of taxpayer-funded research to private biotechnology companies, where earning a profit can eclipse the public good.

"There is enormous pressure for fast results, for blockbusters," said Pamela Ronald, the UC Davis scientist who cloned the gene from Mali and encouraged the university to create the benefit-sharing fund. "If something doesn't yield in six months, it's out."

Survival on a stalk

North of the swift-moving Niger River in Mali, the source of Ronald's cloned African gene is both prized and despised.

To commercial farmers in Mali, the jade-green species of wild rice, Oryza longistaminata, is a weed - a tenacious tangle of roots and leaves so destructive that if they find it in cultivated rice fields, they douse it with chemicals and yank it up by its roots.

To the seminomadic Bela people, who inhabit villages across the region, the grasslike wild rice that grows along irrigation ditches and in wet spots during the rainy season is a gift. It is survival on a stalk - shelter for homes, fodder for livestock and food when times are lean.

Slaves just two generations ago, the Bela are among the poorest of Mali's poor. They earn less than a dollar a day. Most are illiterate. Many are sick. The rhythm of life in a Bela village has two primary beats: food and work. You can hear it in the thwomp, thwomp of women - babies strapped to their backs, babies at their feet - pounding millet into mash. You can see it in the iron-hard muscles of men making bricks out of mud. You can smell it in the acrid smoke of trees burned into charcoal for cooking.

Survival is what counts, not scientific discovery.

When informed that university officials half a world away in California owned a part of their culture, a gene from their rice - and were licensing it to biotechnology corporations - the Bela were puzzled, even angry.

As she sat inside a grass hut weaving reeds into brooms and fans in the Bela backwater of Musawere, Fadimata Walet Alkhassane - a 40-year-old mother of two - expressed the view of many:

"For the man who took something from our rice, I only want to ask him for help so we can leave these bad conditions where we live without adequate water, garments and shoes."

Basket of biotechnology

Helping the world's poor and hungry is a prominent part of American culture and agriculture. It is a creed that shapes U.S. foreign policy, motivates humanitarian organizations and inspires agricultural scientists and students across the country.

And it has no greater success than the "Green Revolution" - an outpouring of farming methods, crop varieties and publicly funded research that, transplanted to India and Asia in the 1960s, saved millions from starvation.

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, was a young U.S. State Department officer in South Vietnam in 1968 when higher-yielding Green Revolution rice began to arrive.

"It brought about a stunning transformation," Quinn said. "People went from being marginal subsistence farmers, growing one crop a year, to growing two or even three.

"You could see people's lives change," he said. "There were more kids going to school. People were better clothed. ... Child mortality rates dropped."

Worldwide, rice production jumped from 257 million tons in 1966 to 587 million tons in 1999, feeding about 700 million more people annually. That's the kind of success the biotechnology industry wants to clone. In advertisements and conferences, companies promise a future of virus-resistant sweet potatoes, vitamin A-enriched rice and other miracle crops for the world's poor.

"Worrying about starving future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will," said one ad by the Monsanto Co., an international biotechnology giant, in a London newspaper in 1998.

Last year, Monsanto Vice President Robert Horsch repeated the theme in testimony on Capitol Hill: "Biotechnology will be a crucial part of expanding agricultural productivity in the 21st century. This technology can be particularly beneficial for Africa."

Today, Monsanto points out that it and other firms are working on a basket of biotechnology products for Africa, including pest-resistant bananas, high-yielding black-eyed peas and millet immune to parasitic infection. But so far, South Africa is the only African nation with commercially grown biotechnology crops - cotton, maize and soybeans.

Some say the industry is peddling dreams. "It's so naive," said Robert Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. "It is at least partly a public relations exercise."

Goodman is no biotechnology basher. He is a former director of research at Calgene, the California firm that brought the first genetically modified crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, to store shelves in 1994. And he advises crop scientists in Africa on both conventional and biotech crops.

Helping Africa's hungry, he said, "is such a complicated situation. There are multiple crops, markets and food preferences among cultures, a whole range of policy and infrastructure issues. I don't think private companies have the staying power to deal with it."

Private property

Biotechnology didn't invent genetic tinkering. All farming springs from it. Corn was once a wild grass in Mexico. Generations of careful plant breeding have brought a cornucopia of choice to store shelves: sweeter onions, seedless grapes, monster melons. But biotechnology works in ways nature does not.

It shuffles genes - tiny biological units that shape life - between species. It imagines a world of frost-resistant tomatoes, drought-tolerant corn, even crops that grow medicines. But so far, most of its magic is tied to two genes, each tailored to U.S. industrial farming: One transfers resistance to the weedkiller Roundup into a crop, making farming easier; the other allows a plant to kill certain insects.

Something else sets biotechnology apart from other farming revolutions: Much of its promise is private property.

No longer do universities routinely make discoveries available, for free, to poor nations - as they did during the Green Revolution. Today, most universities typically patent them first, then license the technology to private companies. The idea is to speed discoveries to market and, as public funding declines, generate money for research.

But there's a downside. What was once owned by all - plant and animal DNA, the building blocks of life - is now the property of a few.

"Three-fourths of new biotechnology products, including those originally made possible by publicly supported research, are controlled by the private sector," said Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation - one of the world's largest nongovernment sources of agricultural research for developing nations - in a speech last year.

Statewide, the University of California holds 125 agricultural biotechnology patents - more than any other university system. Its portfolio includes patents that could help strawberries, lettuce and other California crops resist disease and insects, reducing pesticide use.

But few of those innovations are close to commercialization, in part because of conflicts with other patent holders, mostly corporations. "The system was primed for much greater potential than what we have seen in the field," said Gregory Graff, a research economist at UC Berkeley.

Last year, nine colleges, including UC Davis, formed an initiative to break the impasse by licensing technology more carefully and sharing more discoveries among universities. UC Davis recently was selected to be the national clearinghouse for the effort.

Some are calling for stronger measures. "The patent law did not come down with the Ten Commandments," said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group. "If it doesn't work, we need to rethink it."

Unexpected turns

When UC Davis filed for a patent on the cloned disease-resistant African rice gene in 1995, it saw an opportunity for financial reward and public service. Money was expected to flow to the school from corporate coffers for research and other purposes. Ronald, for example, has received about $825,000 from Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International for work on the rice gene in her laboratory.

UC Davis, in turn, was to sow benefits globally. To work such a miracle, the university had a world of options: It could send Ronald to Africa. It could invest in wild-rice conservation programs in Mali. It could tap school funds and bring a Mali researcher to campus. Instead, it chose to earmark corporate revenue - the money it anticipated making from licensing the cloned gene to the private sector - to set up a scholarship fund for Mali students.

The idea was to use the university's strong suit, its agricultural know-how, to improve the lives of the world's poor through rice. Rice is one of the planet's critical crops, a staple for nearly 2 billion people, many of them impoverished. But up to half of the global rice harvest is lost to disease - a loss UC Davis wanted to stem.

"This was a big scientific deal at the time," said Gary Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs at the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped fund the work. "It turned out to be an extremely valuable gene in rice - and may be valuable in other cereals as well."

Subsequent years were filled with unexpected turns. Monsanto and Pioneer, which signed options to license the gene, lost interest. Hope for the hungry took a detour when UC's Office of Technology Transfer, which manages the rights to use university inventions, spent three years negotiating an agreement with a nonprofit research facility serving Third World farmers - the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Ronald was infuriated. "This drove me absolutely crazy," she said.

"I agree with her frustrations," said Alan Bennett, director of the technology transfer office. "It took a long time - longer than I would have liked."

Nonetheless, Ronald remains a patent partisan. The Mali gene, known as Xa21, she says, may still one day boost crop harvests and yield dividends for the university and for developing nations. Without patents, she said, "all the profits go to the companies."

Philanthropic failure

It's not the gene's scientific potential that has captured the interest of Anil Gupta, an Indian agricultural specialist. It is its philanthropic failure.

Founder of the Honeybee Network, which tracks grass-roots efforts to protect the world's genetic diversity, Gupta wrote a study critical of UC Davis' Genetic Resources Recognition Fund.

"I admire the university's initiative, but the means it chose were not appropriate," Gupta said from his home in India's Gujarat province.

Among other things, his study, commissioned by the U.N. Environment Program, took issue with UC Davis for not consulting with officials in Mali, not working to conserve the wild Malian rice in its natural habitat and not helping the people who actually use it - the Bela.

At UC Davis, those familiar with the fund take a different view.

"Yes, there should be a conservation effort. Yes, there should be consultation," said Stephen Brush, a professor of human and community development. "But that doesn't mean our efforts were misplaced. This was a very innovative idea.

"Look at the practicalities of really getting it done," Brush added. "We would have to go Mali. We'd have to spend time negotiating, figuring out who to talk to."

Children at risk

Sunrise in Mali, when cream-colored light tumbles out of a pastel sky and casts long shadows across the sand, is magnificent. But by mid.morning, Mali turns malevolent. The sun lances like a knife. The wind stirs up gritty clouds of dust and sand. And the heat has no mercy: It bakes and broils, bringing village life to a standstill.

Scores of statistics evoke Mali's misery. Its economy is among the poorest on the planet. The average life span is 49. The infant mortality rate - 119 per 1,000 births - is the ninth-highest in the world.

But Mali's misfortune touches some more than others. In the desert outback north of Ségou, it is magnified in the Bela villages where statistics are more than numbers on a page. They wear a human face.

They pad along the sand in bare feet and ragged T-shirts. They scavenge for seeds. They slap mud into wood frames to make bricks. And, like 6-year-old Alhousseini Ag Intamaka, they stand in the doorway of a hut in cowhide sandals.

The U.N. Statistics Division reports that Mali has the third-highest illiteracy rate in the world. Eight million of its 12 million people can't read or write. Alhousseini is one of them.

Like most Bela children, he has never seen a school, nor is he likely to. In this isolated village of Djoringuinda, there is no school. And childhood is brief.

"It's important he stay with the family - to help gather food, to herd our goats," said the boy's mother, Hatta Oualet Aboubaerine, in her native Tamashek language.

Among the Bela, childhood is not only short - it's risky. According to the U.N. Development Program, Mali has the highest childhood mortality rate from malaria in the world - 2,046 per 100,000 in the year 2000.

Many are buried in Bela villages. "I have 15 children but five are dead - three from malaria," said Douna Ag Ekhamadane, chief of the Bela settlement of Fisso.

But all ages suffer. "For 18 days, I was sick. Today is my first day back," said brick maker Mossa Ag Alamene Cisse, just recovered from malaria. Standing near his mud-splattered job site, the 36-year-old Bela man looked worn out.

Making bricks is brutal work that pays about $1 a day - a typical wage in Mali, where the U.S. Agency for International Development reports people earn an average of $250 a year. Many make less.

"Sometimes we earn only 50 cents a day," said Alkhassane Ag Bilal, a Musawere farm worker. "And some days, nothing. We are paid only with food - rice or millet."

The U.N. also reports that Mali is chronically malnourished - one in five people don't get enough to eat. A balanced diet is not part of the Bela lifestyle.

Bursting into a thatch-roofed hut in Fisso, one gaunt herder opened his cupped hands to reveal a few specks of partially eaten grain seeds - crawling with ants.

"In a good year, these insects gather food like this and store it in the ground," Wandaya Ag Khami said. "And in a bad year, we dig it up and eat it."

Ag Khami's home, Fisso, is part of a constellation of Bela villages stretching northeast for 300 sun-punished miles from Niono to Timbuktu. Most settlements are home to fewer than 200 people. They are not marked on maps. For a visitor, just getting to a Bela village is a kidney-jarring excursion over rippling dunes, through eerie forests of flat-topped acacia trees and past grazing camels.

The Bela are tall, strong and friendly. Knowledge of foreign affairs is vague. During one conversation, Musawere chief Aljou Ag Alkhassane was perplexed when "America" was mentioned. "I've heard the name," he said. "But I don't know what it is."

Around the squalid farm town of Niono, where many Bela congregate for work, they live in clusters of mud and stick huts on the edges of someone else's fields. They sow sorghum and millet on scrub land ignored by others.

But when their domestic crops wither, the Bela have a backup. They forage for nuts and seeds. They comb the ditches and damp spots for bright green pools of wild Malian rice.

"The work is very hard," said Fadimata Walet Alkhassane, the Bela woman in Musawere. "Sometimes we labor all day - from morning to night - just for a handful. It can take three or four days to make one meal."

Nothing is wasted. After the reddish grains are gathered, the Bela bundle the stalks of O. longistaminata and use them for roofs, fences and windbreaks. They mix them with mud to make bricks. They even use them in dancing and ceremonies.

But one day soon, those practices may be history.

As Mali's rice industry has grown, efforts to eradicate O. longistaminata have intensified. Pointing to a green smudge on the horizon west of his Bela village of Bankore 1-7 Koura, farmer Talfi Yattara shook his head.

"Over there - through those trees - that's where we gathered wild rice," said Yattara, a pickax over his shoulder. "For me it was important - something to eat, to live on. But farmers from another ethnic group took the land, irrigated it and planted it. The wild rice, it no longer appears."

Blight-resistant rice

It was in this dusty region that a scientist more than 30 years ago collected a sample of O. longistaminata and dropped it in a bag. Not realizing the importance of his find, the researcher carried the sample - along with others - to the Central Rice Research Institute in India.

At that facility, in the mid-1970s, a scientist noticed something curious. When he dipped the leaves of O. longistaminata and other varieties into a solution containing the dreaded bacterial blight disease, the wild Malian rice remained healthy.

Excitement spread rapidly.

By 1978, O. longistaminata was sprouting at the the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, where scientists began trying to find the source of its disease-fighting power. By 1990, they had narrowed the search to a neighborhood of genes, perhaps even a single gene they called Xa21.

Then, Pam Ronald, a young researcher from Cornell University, showed up at IRRI and requested samples of the variety. IRRI sent seeds to Ronald by airmail. For free.

At Cornell, researchers had just completed a map to the vast genetic landscape of rice - its genome. Two years later Ronald took a job at UC Davis, where she continued searching for Xa21. By 1995, she had found it, and she began churning out clones. Soon afterward, the University of California filed a patent application on her clone.

The implications were enormous. Rice is a main dish for a third of the planet's inhabitants, but production is not keeping pace with population growth. If Xa21 could be spliced through crop biotechnology into domestic rice, it could feed future generations. Even more promising, there were signs it might work in maize, millet, sorghum and other crops important in the Third World.

"There was so much excitement," Ronald recalled.

Like most UC Davis professors, Ronald is a public employee, paid by the state. Her research was partly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which has a mission to help feed poor nations.

But as word of her success spread, the private sector rushed in.

Monsanto and Pioneer negotiated options to license the gene, hoping to turn it into a blockbuster. Monsanto would pursue work on barley and rice, Pioneer on corn.

To the University of California, it was a natural fit. "We are good at basic discovery. We are not good at commercial development," said Bennett, the technology transfer director.

"It seemed like a good situation," Ronald agreed. "I was thrilled."

Sharing the spoils

Ronald's office, near the center of campus, is a reflection of her life. There are long rows of books, a bank of well-organized file cabinets and a rumpled gym bag in a corner. Ronald swims two miles a day and has an athlete's energy and determination.

As the potential of Xa21 became clear, Ronald threw her energy into sharing the spoils with Mali.

Traditionally, plants have been regarded as a common heritage of mankind, a vast green reservoir tapped for everything from cancer-fighting drugs to high-yielding crops. But biotechnology, with its power to patent genes, has raised concerns that universities and companies in wealthy nations are mining the genetic wealth of poor ones without compensating them - a practice some call "bio-prospecting," others "bio-piracy."

Ensuring that developing countries are rewarded for genetic resources was a key provision of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity - a global treaty signed by more than 160 nations.

It was Ronald's mission, too: "It just seemed such common sense."

But she wasn't sure how to proceed. Using a biotechnology patent to help an impoverished African nation was unprecedented. Ultimately, in a plan approved by UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, the university decided it would award scholarships funded by the gene's expected future corporate profits.

"Education - in all its forms - is the thing we do," Vanderhoef said. "We felt this was something that certainly couldn't hurt."

Then something unanticipated happened: Monsanto and Pioneer didn't commercialize the gene.

"They never started any research at all - zero - as far as I can tell," Ronald said. "One day, businesspeople are in the mood to do one thing. And the next day - something else."

Monsanto said its priorities did, in fact, change. "It was an interesting technology at the time," Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said of Xa21 in an e-mail. "Disease resistance isn't something we're focusing on within our pipeline today."

Pioneer said it had better science in-house. "There are a lot of ways to skin a cat," said spokesman Doyle Karr. "We focus on (things) that have the best chance of success."

Legal barriers

One institution remained keenly interested in Xa21 - IRRI, the nonprofit Philippine research center, wanted the cloned gene for its own biotechnology program. The center has a humanitarian goal: "to improve the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers ... particularly those with low incomes."

And Ronald's work, too, had a charitable theme. As a Rockefeller Foundation memo put it: "Rice biotechnology grantees will share materials and technology at zero royalty for use in developing countries. Grantees should not enter into agreements that conflict with this obligation."

Yet when the Philippine center - which had given the rice to Ronald in the first place - asked for a clone of Xa21 back, UC wanted to negotiate.

Although it agreed to provide the gene, UC wanted to make sure IRRI's research did not conflict with the U.S. commercial licenses. "We had legal obligations," said Bennett. "It was a challenging thing - a situation the office had never faced before."

As the haggling dragged on, something else drew Ronald's attention. In year three of the negotiation, she said, the university "put a $10,000 fee in there, after everybody had agreed there would be no charges at all."

Bennett, who had just become director, does not remember a fee. But Rockefeller's Toenniessen does. He called Bennett's office after hearing about it from IRRI. "I talked to a lady who said: 'Our job is to process the agreement and get as much money for the university as we can.' "

As the Xa21 fund foundered, it caught the attention of Gupta - the Indian agricultural specialist - who in 1999 traveled to UC Davis, later visited Mali and wrote his report for the U.N. Environment Program and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

"Pamela deserves credit for what she did," Gupta said. "I greatly admire it. But the community that is conserving the gene - the Bela - does not have children who will ever qualify for scholarships. Scholarships will only help the children of the bureaucrats."

Gupta maintains UC should make contributions mandatory for all scientists working with genetic material from Third World countries and put the money to work on the ground protecting biological diversity. He also said UC Davis administrators should have consulted with officials in Mali.

Chancellor Vanderhoef said UC Davis was "quite dependent on somebody who understood - or felt they understood - that circumstance," referring to Ronald.

Ronald, though, figures doing something was better than doing nothing. "I am not the kind of person where everything has to be perfect before you go forward," she said. "As soon as you go forward, you are going to get criticism."

Mali's top agricultural official had mixed feelings about UC's work with Xa21, which he knew little about. Though there are no genetically engineered crops grown in Mali, Bino Témé said the country might be able to benefit from the gene's powers.

"To share would be a good thing," Témé said in his office in Mali's capital of Bamako. "But how to share - that should be discussed with stakeholders in Mali."

But Témé also voiced personal reservations about UC's decision to patent the cloned African gene: "I am against this kind of appropriation of a genetic resource."

More patent claims

The patent explosion in plant biotechnology sprang from a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the ownership of novel life forms. Congressional passage of the Bayh-Dole Act that year, allowing universities to patent discoveries from government-funded research, also played a role.

The number of plant-related biotechnology patents issued annually by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has jumped dramatically, from just 16 in 1981 to 289 in 1993 and nearly 2,400 last year, according to CAMBIA, an international biotechnology research center.

Today, there are so many claims on genes and gene technology that getting a new product to market is a nightmare. The most often-cited example is "golden rice" - a biotech variety engineered to produce beta carotene. It is aimed at curing a vitamin-A deficiency that causes blindness in Third World children. Five years ago, research on golden rice was stymied by more than 60 patents. It is not yet in production.

"If there were no patents, I would be happy," said Gurdev Khush, winner of the 1996 World Food Prize and former director of the plant-breeding program at IRRI in the Philippines. "Patents certainly complicate and delay research."

Khush - who received a doctorate from UC Davis in 1960 - knows Mali's wild rice well. He is the one who brought it from India to the Philippines in 1978. It also was Khush who sent the cultivated variety containing the Xa21 gene to Ronald.

Even so, he supports UC's decision to patent Ronald's discovery. "If you don't do it, somebody else might - and exploit it," he said.

Universities, foundations and companies are working to break the patent logjam by forming pools of publicly accessible patents to speed biotech varieties to hungry nations. One effort - the African Agricultural Technology Foundation - is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Many Africans remain skeptical of biotechnology, saying genetically modified agriculture is just another First World help-the-hungry notion that will have little lasting impact - and could hurt more than it helps.

"This could mean another type of dependency," said Mamadou Dia.wara, director of the Center for Research on Local Knowledge in Bamako.

"Biotechnology is a technical solution," Diawara said, and in a country like Mali, technical fixes don't work well. "We have had antibiotics since 1928. But we still have kids dying daily here from very light infections. The challenge is not technical. It is social and political. It is finding simple solutions on the ground."

Hopeful for help

At Mali's rice research center outside Niono, truly simple solutions would help - like those a good plumber could offer. In the main administrative building, the toilets don't flush. No water flows from the taps. On a Tuesday afternoon, the place doesn't bustle - it hibernates.

In his cramped office, microbiologist Soungalo Sarra said he found out about the university's gene fund only last year - while surfing the Internet.

"If you don't know a fund exists, you cannot benefit from it," he said. Still, Sarra is hopeful something might one day germinate.

"Our laboratories are not well-furnished," he said. "We could exchange a lot of information on rice."

The facility's chief of research, Mamadou M'Bare Coulibay, reacted enthusiastically when told details about UC Davis' work with Xa21.

He was eager for information, for communication with UC and something more: He wanted the gene itself.

"The gene was taken from Mali," he said, springing to his feet, leaning over his desk. "It should be returned so we can test it on Malian crops, on Malian land."

Biotech terms

Biotechnology: Any technology involving living cells or organisms. In general use, and in this series, it refers to gene-splicing technology. Synonyms: bioengineering, genetic engineering (GE) and genetic modification (GM).

Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that produces toxins lethal to certain insects but is considered safe for humans and other mammals. When the bacterial gene responsible for the toxin is put into crops, the plants make their own pesticide.

Clone: Genetically engineered replica of a DNA sequence. "Cloning a gene" means isolating and making copies of a gene, typically using engineered bacteria. (The more common use of "clone" means an organism derived from the DNA of a single "parent.")

Gene: A DNA segment that is the basic unit of heredity, containing instructions that cells need to make proteins, the workhorse of cell activity.

Genetically modified organism (GMO): An inexact term that refers to a life form changed through genetic engineering.

Genome: All the genetic information in an organism.

Organic foods: As defined by the U.S. government, organic animal products come from livestock that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones, while organic crops are grown without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge or most conventional pesticides.

Processed foods: Foods altered from their raw state, typically resulting in changes in appearance, culinary characteristics, nutritional value, shelf life and structure. Examples: canned goods, cereals or crackers.

Roundup: Trade name for herbicide glyphosate made by Monsanto. Kills plants by inhibiting an enzyme made in plants but not in mammals, fish, birds or reptiles. Crops are "Roundup Ready" if they are genetically engineered to survive exposure to Roundup.

Transgene: Genetic material transferred from one organism to another through genetic engineering.


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