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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee's Basic Research Subcommittee Hearing on Plant Genome Research

August 3, 1999

On August 3rd, the House Science Committee's Basic Research Subcommittee held a hearing to review federal funding for plant genome research, the federal government's role in supporting this research, and the potential impact of this research on agriculture and the marketing of agricultural products. In his opening remarks, Chairman Smith noted that NSF has been at the forefront of seeking knowledge about the understanding of plants at the biochemical and genetic level, and that the future might well rest on NSF initiatives to better understand the Arabidopsis and many other plants like tomatoes, corn, rice, etc. Witnesses included Dr. Mary E. Clutter, AD for Biological Sciences, NSF; Dr. Eileen Kennedy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics, USDA; Dr. Kenneth Keegstra, Director and Professor, Michigan State University Plant Research Laboratory; Dr. John A. Ryals, CEO, Paradigm Genetics, Research Triangle Park, NC; and, Dr. Susanne Huttner, Director, Biotechnology Research and Education Program, UC Berkeley.

In a hearing that focused mainly on regulatory issues, private/public partnerships and future applications of plant genome research, witnesses emphasized the importance of this research to the future of agriculture. Dr. Clutter said that in plant biology NSF supports more than 50% of all peer-reviewed research at academic institutions. She explained the multi-national effort began in 1989 on plant genomics and how it is changing plant biology and agricultural science. She stressed the importance of research on Arabidopsis to other economically important plants, and added that because of rapid advancements occurring in information technology and biotechnology, total sequencing of Arabidopsis will occur by the end of 2000. This is four years ahead of schedule. Dr. Clutter also noted the importance of this research as an international project where research scientists decide the goals, not the governments, and stressed that all data is deposited in public databases. The next step, she said, is functional genomics, a view shared by all panelists.

Dr. Kennedy noted USDA efforts in plant genomics through three entities: the Agricultural Research Service, the National Research Initiative, and through the Land Grant Colleges and Universities. She said this rapidly expanding area necessitates interagency cooperation and stressed her support of collaborative efforts with NSF. She also discussed the interagency working group on plant genomics she co-chairs with Dr. Clutter. She went on to describe research efforts to date, particularly the "N" gene, which makes potatoes and tomatoes resistant to plant diseases. Dr. Kennedy said the USDA is heavily involved in technology transfer and also discussed USDA's risk assessment program. Dr. Keegstra said identifying genes is only the first step, that the goal is to determine the function of these genes. The purpose of his consortium is to identify the function of the genes in Arabidopsis. This knowledge, he said, has significance for nutritional quality, drought resistance, and disease and insect resistance. He noted that because of technological advances needed to complete this task, he urges continued support by Congress.

Dr. Ryals said that what we are seeing in agricultural biotechnology is the emergence of a technological revolution - gene discovery and the understanding of the function of genes. The money invested by the private sector will be proportional to the understanding of these functions. The main question, he said, is where this technology is going over the next several years. Dr. Ryals says he believes it will result in healthier foods, adding that the economic impact of these technologies is immense. Dr. Huttner said three factors have fueled U.S. world leadership in biotechnology: public investment in basic research, private investment in entrepreneur start-up companies, and public policy. She noted that public investment through NSF along with private investment is helping to accelerate the pace. She added that the most serious problem is with the hysteria in Europe that agricultural biotechnology makes products risky. She said the general consensus from the international scientific community is that genomics makes plants more precise. She stated that sound public policy emphasizing scientifically defined elements is needed in order for agricultural biotechnology to play on a level playing field.

Rep. Smith was particularly concerned with public/private partnerships and the coordination of information obtained from private sector research with that of the federal government. Dr. Ryals said there is not much of a driver for the private sector to coordinate research efforts, as it is not looked at as a competitive advantage. Dr. Huttner said incentives need to be developed for this kind of relationship and that the federal government should move towards more partnerships. Dr. Clutter said she is very concerned about the duplication of effort of research funded by the private sector and that of the public sector, because some research by industry is not being shared. Rep. Smith was also concerned about setbacks caused by things like the information concerning the risk to the Monarch Butterfly by bt corn, specifically, were these effects known ahead of time. Dr. Huttner noted they were, but that many factors would have to happen at the same time and place for serious risk to occur, a rare possibility. Dr. Ryals added that testing is extensive, and that while the risk was known, exposure levels would have to be very high - a risk vs. benefit scenario. Rep. Smith said more effort needs to be made in the prediction of consequences and the likelihood of consequences. Dr. Clutter noted that some of the research funded in this year's NSF plant genome competition directly relates to this.

Rep. Woolsey asked who develops risk standards to evaluate cheap/efficient for taste/smell. Dr. Kennedy said EPA looks at the environmental impact and the FDA looks at food safety labeling, adding that the biggest growth in the past 10 years has been in "designer" foods. Rep. Boehlert said there needs to be more of a commitment to plant genomics and also asked about coordination efforts between federal sources and the private sector. Dr. Clutter discussed the Interagency Working Group (IWG) under OSTP and the five-year strategic plan for a national plant genome initiative published by the IWG in January of 1998. Dr. Kennedy said the IWG is looking at a cohesive approach to the issue and is looking to the stakeholders for priorities. He also questioned the level of support by NSF for genetically altered plants, to which Dr. Clutter noted that NSF spends close to $50M. Rep. Larson addressed, among other things, the need to get publicly sponsored research to the small entrepreneur. Dr. Kennedy noted that this also goes to the point of public/private partnerships. There needs to be an open and honest dialogue.