While we in the west continue in our narcissistic obsession with our own genome and the futuristic possibilities of human cloning, scientists in the developing world are more interested in the crops that put food in hungry mouths. This month a group of them laid bare the complete genome sequence of rice in what may prove to be a turning point for science in the developing world.

Rice is the staple crop for 3 billion people, mostly in Asia, so it was no surprise when Japan fired the starting gun for the genome race in 1991. But big markets generate big profits, so the major agrochemical corporations were soon among the runners. In the end, the Swiss-based multinational biotechnology giant, Syngenta, was a fairly predictable winner. But before environmentalists or globalisation demonstrators protest at yet more science in the pockets of big business, they should note that the other winner was the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI).

Only four years ago, the BGI was an empty brick building. But through the dynamism of its director, geneticist Yang Huanming, and with seed money from the state, Yang's hometown municipal government, and even loans from employees, family and friends, it became a world-class research institute. Soon, several hundred employees were working two 12-hour shifts to keep the sequencing machines running 24 hours a day. With little more than ping-pong to distract them from decoding the rice genome, science in the developing world took on multinational biotechnology, and won - or at least drew.

But the rice genome is far more than a David versus Goliath story. More than a billion people live on less than $1 a day and that usually buys rice. The crop is prone to many diseases and much of it ends up in the belly of an insect. An outbreak of brown plant-hoppers disease cost Java 70% of its rice crop in the 1970s. Climate change is a major worry in marginal lands. Droughts brought by the 1997-98 El Nino inflicted losses across Asia.

Genetic engineering to generate varieties resistant to disease, pests, drought or salinity could revolutionise third world farming. The release of the sequence will help researchers eager to improve crop yields.

Many aid organisations - often influenced by western green campaigns - say GM technology does little to address the real causes of world poverty and hunger. They said the same decades ago when famine was predicted to follow population explosion. The population explosion materialised but the famine didn't. While others argued for social reform, pioneering plant breeders, such as Norman Borlaug, developed high-yielding varieties of maize, wheat and rice. Global harvests soared and have continued to rise at a rate of 2% per year. The green revolution saved millions from starvation, but is grinding to a halt as plant breeders run out of natural genetic variation. To keep pace with population growth, breeders need to tinker with genes. That is why China spent $100m on GM technology in 1999.

Biotechnology is more appropriate for the developing world than most high technologies. At the click of a mouse, a researcher in Addis Ababa or Kuala Lumpur can download the fruits of billion-dollar research projects. And although western manufacturers charge prohibitive prices for their gene-cloning reagents, local manufacturers can often produce the same products cheaply and efficiently. Yang Huanming found a local glass-maker who could make a piece of sequencing kit for a fraction of the price of the import. Unable to acquire US-made supercomputers, BGI scien tists bought locally and developed their own software.

China's ratio of six researchers or engineers for every 10,000 population may seem puny against the 70 or so in the United States, but it is more than 10 times the typical ratio for the poorest countries in Africa or Asia. But China isn't alone in its interest in biotechnology. A coalition of laboratories from Sao Paolo in Brazil has completed the DNA sequence of a bacterium that causes disease in citrus fruits. Researchers from Brazil, India and Mexico are involved in a global consortium to sequence the banana genome. The UN-commissioned human development report 2001 concluded "many developing countries might reap great benefits from genetically modified food crops and other organisms".

GM technology can benefit the poor, but the western anti-technology lobby is busy trying to prevent its use. Publication of the rice gene genome shows how science, in the hands of developing world scientists, can be a liberating influence formankind. It's about time western lobbyists let them get on with it.



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