PARIS ¿ Public research establishments and private companies in France have teamed up to embark on a five-year research program in plant genomics called Ginoplante. The convention establishing this collaboration was signed in Paris on Feb. 23 but, because much of the work will be performed in existing laboratories, the program is effectively already up and running. For the same reason, not all of the FFr1.4 billion (US$250 million) is earmarked for Ginoplante over the period from 1999 to 2003 will be spent on the project.

Of the seven participants in Ginoplante, four are public sector research institutes led by the National Agronomic Research Institute (INRA, or Institut National de la Rechereche Agronomique) and the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS, or Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), while three are private companies: Rhtne-Poulenc Santi Vigitale et Animale (RP-SVA), the plant and animal health division of the French chemical giant; Biogemma, a joint venture between the seed companies Limagrain and Pau Euralis; and Bioplante, an association between two grain companies.

As well as entering into research partnerships at a European level, Ginoplante could bring in partners, provided they make the program the main focus of their plant genomics research and they have a significant scientific contribution to make to the objectives laid down by the founders.

The private companies are to put up more than 30 percent of the funding, while more than 40 percent will be provided by the public research establishments, mostly out of their existing budgets, and just over 25 percent by government ministries. In that regard, Claude Allegre, the French minister of national education, research and technology, who attended the launch of Ginoplante, said his ministry would be providing FFr70 million in the first year, while the ministry of agriculture and fisheries will also be putting up an unspecified amount.

Ginoplante, which is to install its headquarters at the Ginopole, France¿s national biotechnology business and research park in Evry, south of Paris, will comprise a network of laboratories around the country. They will include three new ones, two of which are being established in Evry ¿ one by RhoBio, a plant genetics joint venture between RP-SVA and Biogemma; and the other by INRA and the CNRS, which will undertake basic plant genomics research. The third, to be located in Montpellier, in the south of France, will devote its research to rice. It is being created by the other two public research organizations, which have already acquired considerable know-how about rice, since their work is geared to the needs of the developing world.

Paul Vialle, managing director of INRA and chairman of Ginoplante¿s strategic committee, said it had taken a year and a half to get this initiative off the ground and claimed that the financial resources committed to it were ¿quite considerable on a par with the challenges,¿ although government assistance would be needed to ensure the success of Ginoplante.

The main objective of the Ginoplante research program is to build up a body of knowledge about the genomes of key crops and plants, and to place that knowledge in the public domain. Vialle said the program is ¿neither a transgenics program nor [does it have] anything to do with genetically modified organisms. It is a plant genomics program, and is aimed at gaining a better knowledge of plants and the functions of their genes in order to develop more accurate methods for cross-breeding and produce better seeds and plants.¿

There are two components to this research. ¿Generic Ginoplante¿ is a program of upstream, basic research focused on species used as models, such as rice and arabidopsis, that will develop essential technological tools in the area of robotization and bioinformatics. This work will be concentrated in the three new laboratories now being created. The other element, known as ¿Species Ginoplante,¿ which will be carried out in a large number of laboratories around the country, will focus on wheat, maize and rape, drawing on the upstream research and applying the generic technologies developed. Research results will be published and developing countries will be given privileged access to them, said Vialle.

There are potentially 200 researchers in France that could be interested in Ginoplante, according to Vialle, who expects 100 to 130 actually to participate (not counting laboratory technicians and support staff). He stressed that the Ginoplante network would be run by a lightweight structure at the center, consisting of his strategic committee and an executive board chaired by Michel Caboche, who will run the INRA-CNRS plant genomics laboratory in Evry and who already heads INRA¿s seed biology laboratory in Versailles.

The founders of Ginoplante stressed the importance of protecting their discoveries with strong patents and sharing that intellectual property with all participants in the program. INRA will patent the results of the ¿Generic Ginoplante¿ program, while the discoveries of the ¿Species Ginoplante¿ program will be patented by the company or organization that made the largest financial contribution to them. In both cases, other participants will have automatic access to these discoveries, but will have to pay for it.

Licenses for Ginoplante¿s discoveries may be granted to third parties, but only with the prior agreement of the strategic committee. One of the declared goals of Gionoplante is to encourage the creation and development of young, innovative companies and to increase both activity and employment in the biotechnology industry. n