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Thai scientists patent rice genes
A group of Thai biotechnologists has patented a group of genes in the rice plant that they claim are responsible for producing aromatic grain.

Patent registration with the US Patent and Trademark Office is being followed by patent applications in another seven countries. The leader of the Thailand Rice Genome Project, Apichart Wannavijitr, said yesterday it was the first time Thai researchers had received patent protection for genetic material and showed that Thailand's capacity in biotechnology was up with that in the rest of the world.

The project is a collaboration between the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec) and Kasetsart University. The dis-covery was made last year and the patent registered earlier this year.

Biotec's director, Morakot Tanticharoen, said the team had spent several years studying the rice genome to discover the genes in Thai jasmine rice that gave it its unique fragrance.

The sequence of genes giving a rice plant a fragrant aroma is now not only known but can also be used to create aromatic qualities in ordinary, non-aromatic rice varieties, she said.

The researchers found that fragrant rice was the result of a genetic mutation, the plant actually having abnormal genes.

In the gene sequence of Thai jasmine rice, eight genetic "characters" are not working.

The rice genome has about 50,000 genes. This discovery led researchers to conclude that if the same eight characters were stopped in other rice varieties, they would develop aromatic qualities, she said.

Laboratory tests on non-fragrant Japanese rice successfully changed it into fragrant rice.

With this technique, researchers can improve other rice breeds to produce a better fragrance.

It can also be applied to improving other crops, including wheat, corn, soybeans and coconuts, Morakot said.

Apichart said it was important for Thailand to register the patent so as to keep the benefits for Thailand.

As well as the US, the research team is applying for patents in Australia, France, China, Vietnam, Japan, India and the Philippines. Among them are the country's main rice-growing competitors.

Morakot said the patent registration was aimed at protecting Thailand's intellectual property in having found the aroma gene and also its use to boost local rice-breeding efforts.

In addition, the team has also developed a molecular marker for the aroma genes, called Aromaker. It will substantially shorten the time needed to develop new varieties.

According to the Office of Economic Agriculture, Thailand's total rice exports in 2004 were worth Bt108 billion. Of this, aromatic rice exports were valued at Bt35 billion.

Morakot said the improvement of aromatic rice would not only help farmers produce better-quality grain but would also generate more export income.

The new discoveries of the Thailand Rice Genome Project will be showcased at Bio Thailand 2005, the country's largest biotechnology exhibition, opening on Wednesday at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre.
MGR Archive 31.10.2005
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