Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Business Impact

Seed Spat

AG Biotech

Over the past two decades, genetically modified plants have graduated from laboratory curiosities to crops planted on millions of hectares. But while major seed firms have struggled with public worries over environmental questions and food safety, they’ve also been locked in a more private fight over a central question: who owns one of the industry’s principal gene-insertion technologies?

The dispute is coming to a head. Last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a broad patent to Washington University in St. Louis covering one of the industry’s most basic tools: the use of a soil bacterium to insert desired genes into the DNA of broad-leafed crops like soybean, cotton, potato and canola, conferring traits like herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. “That was the fundamental feature of our work,” says Andrew Binns, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the inventors named on the patent. “It is the basis for practically all plant genetic engineering these days.”

Agricultural biotech giant Syngenta, based in Basel, Switzerland, holds exclusive rights to the Washington University patent. Andrew Neighbour, director of the school’s technology transfer office, says the patent “certainly provides [Syngenta] with a strong position in the marketplace.” But while the granting of the patent was a watershed event-coming 17 years after its first version was filed-the issued patent is a shadow of its original self. Many of the claims originally filed are absent; these are still in dispute.

This story is part of our May 2001 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

Syngenta isn’t the only seed company interested in the patent’s fate: Monsanto, Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences also make heavy use of the technique. Syngenta says it is not yet trying to collect royalties on its patent. And none of the companies would comment on the claims being fought out in the patent office, what the technology is worth, or what the financial impact might be once ownership is resolved. The patent office could rule as early as next year. But given the technology’s key role in a multibillion-dollar industry, the next stop may well be the courts.

Cut off? Read unlimited articles today.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
More from Business Impact

How technology advances are changing the economy and providing new opportunities in many industries.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.