At first glance, an aging industrial section of Cambridge, Mass., seems an odd place to look for the future of agriculture. The only plants are weeds along the railroad tracks and well-tended shrubs and trees dotting the entrances to the high-tech businesses that are rejuvenating the area. The agricultural heartland of the United States is a thousand miles away.
And you won’t find any greenhouses or pots of experimental plants inside Cereon Genomics. It looks like any other molecular genetics lab. Technicians prepare bar-coded samples; nearby, rows of sophisticated instruments that were originally developed for sequencing human genes form a high-speed manufacturing line. The difference is that the raw materials for this gene factory are often snippets of plants, and the product is information on the plant’s DNA-their genetic blueprints.
From his corner office, Roger Wiegand raises his eyebrows toward the automated equipment in back of him. Wiegand is Cereon’s director of genomics technology-the science of identifying genes and their functions. There may not be any greenery around, but for a longtime molecular biologist, Wiegand says, running Cereon’s lab is “like being a kid in a candy factory.”
The excitement is based on the conviction that the gene information being harvested at Cereon-and at other plant genomics labs sprouting up around the world-will help seed a biotech transformation of agriculture. Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agricultural and pharmaceutical giant, late last year committed to spend over $200 million to create Cereon, a wholly owned subsidiary it formed in an alliance with gene hunter Millennium Pharmaceuticals. The deal is one of the boldest moves in Monsanto’s makeover into a “life sciences” company. (In June, Monsanto announced plans to merge with American Home Products.) And it reflects the former chemical company’s deep-pockets belief that it can leverage the growing knowledge of genes into big business-and in so doing change how farmers and consumers think about plants.
Other companies share this vision. Several other chemical and drug giants, notably DuPont and Novartis (the Swiss company resulting from the 1996 merger of Ciba and Sandoz), have plowed billions into the dream. If these companies are right, within five years farmers will be planting cotton that is naturally colored to reduce the need for dyeing, as well as crops that harbor plastic. Growers will be armed with higher-yielding, bug-resistant crops. Consumers will pick up from supermarket shelves healthier and more nutritious foods that come from genetically modified plants. Further in the future, children will get vaccines through bananas or other foods, avoiding the terror of needles (see “Making Needles Needless,”).