In an unprecedented event in plant biotechnology, AgracetusInc. on Tuesday received a broad U.S. patent, No. 5,159,135,covering all genetically engineered cotton products.

According to the Middleton, Wisc., company, this is the firstreported case where one patent covers all transgenic plants ofone crop.

Agracetus, a wholly owned subsidiary of W.R. Grace & Co., ispursuing a particular market niche in the specialty naturalfibers business by developing fibers through geneticengineering with new traits, such as improved dye binding,chemical reactivity, thermal characteristics or absorbency, thatcombine the appearance and texture of cotton with the benefitof enhanced fiber performance and improved processeconomics.

By utilizing genes from non-cotton plants, bacteria, animals orother sources, entirely new characteristics can be introducedinto the fiber and inherent traits can be improved.

For example, it may be possible to produce biodegradable"plastic" within the central hollow core of the fiber by using agene that encodes a biopolymer that might change thermal,strength and resiliency characteristics of the engineered cottonfiber.

"We will be able to address market needs which to date havebeen impossible with either cotton or synthetic fibers," saidRussell Smestad, Agracetus' vice president of finance andcommercial development.

Although Smestad said he couldn't quantify the marketpotential for products, he explained that Agracetus will step inwhere its competition, the synthetics market, can't meetmarket requirements.

More than 10 million to 12 million acres of cotton are grown inthe U.S. The primary value of cotton, valued at $4 billionannually at the grower level in the U.S. alone, results from itsfiber and the oil extracted from pressed seeds.

The newly issued patent further strengthens Agracetus'technology position in the field.

In April the company received a U.S. patent covering a methodused to genetically engineer cotton using a plant pathogen,Agrobacterium tumefaciens, to insert genes into plant cells. Thecompany has applied for patents for its proprietary particle-mediated gene transfer technology, Accell, which reduces thetime needed to generate transgenic cotton by more than 50percent.

As a result of its monopoly on genetically engineered cottontechniques, the company has formed several non-exclusivelicensing agreements with two other major players in thecotton business: Monsanto Co. and Calgene Inc. Smestad wouldnot disclose financial details of either deal.

Roger Salquist, Calgene Inc.'s chairman and chief executive, toldBioWorld that the Davis, Calif., company recently signed alicensing agreement with Agracetus for rights to itsagrobacterium technology and therefore doesn't expectAgracetus' strong patent position to affect the development ofCalgene's cotton products.

In fact, Jim McCamant of the Berkeley, Calif.-based MedicalTechnology Stock Letter, said Calgene will clearly be the first tomarket with a genetically engineered cotton product, perhapsby 1994.

According to Monsanto spokeswoman Julie Tockman, Monsantois currently running trials in eight states, testing for cottonplants that can protect themselves from insects using licensedAgracetus technology. Monsanto is aiming to enter the marketwith a product in the mid- to late 1990s.

Smestad said he hopes that such licensing agreements willbroaden and accelerate product development and encourageinvestment, with each company having the opportunity topursue its niche areas rather than compete with one another.

"The industry must work together to share technology to themutual benefit of both," he said.

-- Michelle Slade Associate Editor

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