Interested parties have until April 2 to give the EnvironmentalProtection Agency their opinions concerning field trials thissummer of corn plants that pack their own built-in insecticideagainst the pestilential European corn borer.

A notice in the Federal Register on Wednesday invited publiccomment on the trials, to be conducted on experimentalacreage in Iowa, Nebraska and Maryland by Crop GeneticsInternational Corp. (CGI) of Hanover, Md.

Joseph Kelly, CGI's (NASDAQ:CROP) chairman, told BioWorld thathe anticipates no problems obtaining an experimental usepermit from EPA, as his company has already conductedsmaller outdoor experiments on its InCide anti-corn borer cornseeds for the past five years.

This year, eight of the 10 test plots of the InCide corn will beconducted by CGI's new commercialization partner, ZenecaSeeds Co., formerly a division of Imperial Chemical Industries(ICI).

Also new is the end-point of the impending trials, not just tosee if the InCide system really works, by nipping corn-borerinfestation in the bud, but measuring improved yield and costfactors conferred by the genetically engineered corn seeds.

"Zeneca's purpose is to show how many more bushels per acreyou get, using our technology for control of corn-borers," Kellysaid.

"They've shipped us their corn seed here from Iowa," hecontinued, "and even as we speak, we're in the process ofinoculating it with our transgenic, plant-dwelling bacterium,Clavibacter xyli." CGI cloned the insecticidal delta-endotoxingene from Bacillus thuringiensis into C. xyli, making the cornleaves lethal to the voracious corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis).

Inoculation involves putting the corn kernels and the gene-altered bacterium into a pressure vessel together. The pressureforces the microbes into the seed, and grows inside the cornwhen it is sown.

"Opening a door with a company like Zeneca fits into our totalcorporate strategy," Kelly explained. "With a project like InCide,we did what the big companies can't do very well -- creativeresearch, high risk, move very quickly. But when it comes toselling these things in a worldwide market, Zeneca can do itbetter than we can. Our goal is never to have a sales person."

Zeneca is a relative bit player in the seed business, said Kelly.It shares perhaps 3 percent to 5 percent of the U.S market withSandoz, Ciba-Geigy and Dow-Elanco. Pioneer-Hybrid commandsthe lion's share, 40 percent, followed by DeKalb Genetics Corp.,with about 10 percent. Mom-and-pop seed outlets account forthe rest of the market.

Nearly half of Zeneca's revenues (48 percent) derive frompharmaceuticals, mainly prescription drugs, followed byagrochemicals and seeds (31 percent).

Genetically Engineered Tomatoes

Another instance of the latter's stake in biotechnology R&D --besides its anti-corn borer deal with CGI -- concerns geneticallyengineered tomatoes. Zeneca's manager of non-seed plantproducts, Simon Best, told BioWorld that his company'sportfolio of 13 fruit-ripening genes "is much morecomprehensive than Calgene Inc.'s Flavr Savr's one or twotexture genes, and one for ethylene." His newly renamedcompany intends to prosecute its patent interference disputewith the Davis, Calif., company over the latter's tomato.

"Our first product on the market," Best said, "will be processedtomatoes containing the (controversial) polygalacturonase gene,for increased viscosity of soluble solids, for thicker sauces andketchup." Last July, ICI announced a collaborative agreementwith Hunt-Wesson Inc. of Fullerton, Calif., "the largest processorand retailer of tomato products in the world."

Hunt representative Kay Carpenter told BioWorld that thistomato-enhancement contract focuses on processing the fruit,rather than marketing it at retail.

But by deploying its color and flavor genes, Zeneca expects toput redder, tastier tomatoes on retail produce shelves soonafter the mid-'90s. Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. of Salinas, Calif.,is its partner in this development.

In a lateral application of plant genetic engineering, Best'sresearchers will attempt to transform canola rapeseed with agene from the Alcaligenes eutrophus bacterium, whichsynthesizes a biopolymer plastic. Zeneca's specialty group nowsells the bacterial product, which ICI developed over a decadeago, for shampoo bottles and surgical sutures.

By Best's best estimate, Zeneca's pharmaceutical group spendshalf a billion dollars a year worldwide on research. About one-eighth of this falls under biotechnology, primarily for drug-discovery. So far, he added, no known human proteins as suchhave been cloned or expressed, but one therapeutic package, atumor-targeted antibody conjugated to a ricin toxin againstcolorectal cancer, is in early clinical dose-ranging trials inBritain.

In the U.S., Immunogen, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., and XomaCorp.., Berkeley, Calif., are among the leaders in ricinimmunotoxins for cancer therapy.

-- David N. Leff Science Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.

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