Science + Technology

University of California and Ceres, Inc. Form Plant Genetics Partnership


The University of California and Ceres, Inc., an agricultural biotechnologycompany, have formed a partnership to create a multicampus "institutewithout walls." Ceres will provide $5.75 million to UC over five yearsto support plant molecular biology research at a newly created Seed Institute.The agreement also includes the creation of a Plant Genomics TechnologyCenter at UCLA.

The partnership comes at a time when molecular and genetic techniquesmake it possible to identify and isolate every gene in plant chromosomes,and define its function.

"We're in a new era where genetic engineering opens the possibilityto use plants as factories of novel chemicals -- and this will change theeconomics of agriculture," said Robert B. Goldberg, UCLA professorof cell, molecular and developmental biology, and co-director of the SeedInstitute. "When people look back 1,000 years from now, they willsay that this was the beginning of directing our biological destiny.

"We are already able to design plants containing better nutrientsfor human consumption, plants that are insect-resistant or that are resistantto environment-friendly herbicides. In the future we will be able to movegenes from exotic plants or from other organisms into crop plants, engineerplants as factories for vaccines or pharmaceuticals, and increase a plant'sphotosynthetic efficiency. We may even be able to do away with fossil fuelsand use plant derivatives as the source of fuel for cars. These changeswill greatly benefit mankind and the environment.

"The Seed Institute will contribute to the discovery of the genesthat will change our thinking about what plants can do for mankind. Wewill be able to answer such questions as which genes determine the architectureof a plant, and how they work," Goldberg added.

Under the agreement, Ceres will provide $4.75 million for research overfive years, including sponsoring undergraduate research fellowships atUCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz. Laboratories on these fourUC campuses will be part of the Seed Institute, along with the Universityof Utah, which has a renowned plant genetics laboratory. ]

In addition, Ceres will provide $1 million to establish a Plant GenomicsTechnology Center at UCLA -- for the use of scientists and students fromUC campuses -- with the most sophisticated technologies available, includingstate-of-the-art DNA sequencing machines, for plant genomics research.

Genomics is the ability to study the complete set of instructions formaking an organism -- all of its genes -- rather than individual genes.

"The emerging field of plant genomics offers great promise to identifyall of the genes necessary to program the entire life cycle of major cropplants, and to harvest these genes to make the 'super plants' of the 21stcentury," said Goldberg, whose research focuses on gene expressionduring plant development.

Faculty, researchers and students -- undergraduate and graduate -- willparticipate in the Seed Institute's research. The agreement can be extendedbeyond the initial five years, with Ceres providing $1.25 million for eachadditional year.

Mark Vaeck, vice president of operations at Ceres, a Malibu-based plantgenomics company, said that Ceres entered into the partnership "tobroaden our knowledge base in plant biology, especially our ability toidentify and characterize genes that play an important role in regulatingplant development.

"The University of California has leading expertise in seed development,"Vaeck said. "Ceres intends to become the foremost independent providerof commercially important plant genes and traits to the seed, food, fiber,agrochemical and chemical industries. The UC research alliance is partof Ceres' overall R&D strategy and will help us reach our researchgoals."

Brian Copenhaver, provost of UCLA's College of Letters and Science,praised the alliance as "a novel model for a partnership" betweenindustry and universities.

"This unique long-term commitment by an agricultural biotechnologycompany supports university research and teaching, and will make it possiblefor the University of California to provide the basic research that willbe applied to generate the agricultural products of the next century,"Copenhaver said.

"In addition to making a commitment to fund research on plant developmentin our laboratories, Ceres is providing us with valuable resources, technologyand expertise," Copenhaver added. "For example, Ceres will allowUC scientists to use its 'gene machine,' which provides the means to elucidatethe function of many thousands of specific DNA sequences in plants."

"Students will greatly benefit from this partnership," saidFred Eiserling, dean of life sciences at UCLA and co-director of the SeedInstitute.

"Ceres will, for example, determine the DNA sequences of genesthat contribute to seed formation -- information that we could not otherwiseobtain -- which will be available for our basic research on seed development,"Eiserling said. "Ceres will provide the technology necessary to testour researchers' theories and determine whether our scientists have discoveredprinciples that are generally applicable to seeds. Undergraduate, graduateand postdoctoral students will be trained and will benefit greatly fromthis unique collaboration."

Plants have 25,000-50,000 genes, and very little is known about thevast majority of these genes, said Goldberg, who is also a co-founder ofCeres and a member of its board of directors. "We want to learn whatthe genetic control systems are; we want to learn about the building blocks,"Goldberg said.

How soon will the agricultural revolution arrive?

"It's here already," he answered. "All the technologynecessary to engineer a plant exists. Genetic engineering of plants isold stuff now. More than 30 percent of all crop plants in the U.S. aregenetically engineered. Ten years from now, it will be close to 100 percent.We can now sequence a plant genome, and we can study the activity of thousandsof genes at a time; genomics is changing the face of agriculture.

"Although I cannot predict what kind of products will result fromgenomics discoveries, I can assure you we'll find something significant."

Ceres was founded in 1997 after Goldberg encouraged Walter De Logi,now Ceres' CEO, to finance a university plant genomics institute. As theydiscussed the promise of plant genomics, Goldberg recalled, De Logi askedhim, "Do you want to start a company?"

"I thought, let's start a company and an institute," Goldbergsaid. The institute would do basic research and teach students, he added,while the company would provide funding for the discovery research andconduct more applied research.

Ceres opened its first laboratory in June of 1997 on campus space thatit leased from UCLA. Since then, the company has raised about $55 million,hired 70 employees and moved to new facilities in Malibu.

"The idea was to create a new way of doing science at a university,"said Goldberg, whose research achievements include the genetic engineeringof a hybridization system that works universally in major crop plants."The professors, students and postdoctoral scholars would work collaborativelyon one important issue, such as how to make a seed, and undergraduateswould participate in state-of-the-art genetics research as part of theresearch team. As a rule, in the field of life sciences research, academicinvestigators work on separate projects in separate labs. However, to tacklemajor scientific problems, a critical mass of technology and brainpoweris required. I was worried that the most exciting plant research wouldbe transferred to industry. I thought I had about a one-in-a-trillion chanceof pulling it off -- but here we are!"

A number of mechanisms have been established to avoid conflicts of interest,including the creation of a university oversight committee to evaluateresearch decisions.

Among the scientists who will participate in the Seed Institute, inaddition to Goldberg, are Robert L. Fischer, UC Berkeley professor of plantand microbial biology; John Harada, UC Davis professor of plant biology;Jack Okamuro, UC Santa Cruz associate professor of biology; and Gary Drews,University of Utah assistant professor of biology.



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