Mapping the wheat genome

by Laurie Gorton
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The Wheat Quality Council’s annual meeting in mid-February in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., used the 2012 mapping of the wheat genome as a jumping off place to consider a wide range of topics relating to the future of agricultural crops, such as what would be the characteristics of an ideal kernel of wheat and what are the patent protections for agricultural plants that may be bioengineered to meet the world’s growing food demands.

Under discussion were a look at the hypothetical nutritional characteristics of an ideal kernel of wheat and what the patent protections are for edible plants that may be frequently bioengineered to meet the world’s growing food demands.

Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council, based in Ridgeway, Colorado, U.S., talked about what additions to the genetic code of wheat she would like to see. Her wish list of hypothetical improvements included the reduction in the amounts of glutenin and gliadin in wheat so that sufferers of celiac disease might be able to consume wheat. She said the likelihood of this ever occurring was slim, although she held out hope that modifications in the wheat kernel may make those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity able to consume bread products such as sourdough.

She added that the perfect wheat would have all the amino acids necessary to form a complete protein, which she said would help out export markets because much of the world needed more complete protein in their diets.

Higher fiber, increased folate, more vitamin A, more iron of the type found in animal sources and higher vitamin D would round out her recipe for bioengineered wheat that would benefit consumers all over the world.

The meeting’s keynote speaker, Heidi S. Nebel, an intellectual property attorney at McKee, Voorhees & Sease, PLC, Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., took on the hot topic of patent rights for plants that are modified by scientists to contain one or more new traits.

That issue was brought up at the United States Supreme Court on Feb. 19 in the case of Vernon Hugh Bowman vs. Monsanto Company, Et Al., which was being tried in order to better delineate the patent protections of bioengineered seeds that could replicate themselves.

Nebel noted that patent protection was secured in the U.S. Constitution, but that the evolution of patent rights for plants has been ongoing, beginning in 1930, when the United States passed the Plant Patent Act. But that law was created decades before people developed ways to inject plants with genes that would change the plants’ characteristics and confer new traits. These changes became problematic when it was time to sell the seeds. Who had that right, only the company that had developed the bioengineered plant or was it possible that second and third parties could sell the altered seed?

“When you buy a bag of seed from a variety that is patented, not only are you paying for the production of that seed or the mechanism that went into making it, you are also buying a license to use that seed granted by the person or the entity that had the exclusive right to make, use or sell that variety,” Nebel said.

She added: “What are the terms of the license that I am buying? That’s where we look at the bag tag and that’s where we look for from Monsanto a technology agreement that they have farmers sign. At the end of the day, all it says is you get to plant this seed one time. You don’t get to save the seed. You get to use this one time and then you get to come back and buy new seed.”

She said there will be more and more patented “traits that are the results of transgenic plants” and, over time, greater understanding of protections afforded plant breeders.

“I think that is a good thing, because I think we need to incentivize research in the area,” she said. “Plant breeding has never been as important as it is today. We all know the stats that food production needs to double by 2050 to feed a population that is expected to grow to 9 billion. A patent system is absolutely imperative to help fund this research and help promote the progress of science as our Founding Fathers envisioned. Plant breeders should have this same right.”