DuPont Co.'s planned acquisition of Pioneer Hi-Bred last week goes a long way toward "sowing up" the consolidation in the U.S. of large seed companies into life science companies, which are applying genomics to develop new agricultural products and need distribution channels for their technology.

However, the application of genomics to plant science involves layers of added complexity compared with its use in human biology. Products resulting from the addition of single genes to plant genomes have begun to enter the marketplace, but products resulting from the manipulation of plant biochemical pathways are about 10 years from being realized.

Although two $100 million companies, Golden Harvest and Cargill, remain independent sources of corn seed, the rest of the top 10 seed companies in the U.S. are consolidated, said Rod Stacey, a partner with Verdant Partners consultants. With its $7.7 billion acquisition of Pioneer, DuPont (Wilmington, Del.) will become the largest owner of seed worldwide, with Novartis Seeds (Golden Valley, Minn.) second and Monsanto Co. (St. Louis, Mo.) third, according to Stacey.

Biotechnology companies applying their capabilities to agriculture will need to make alliances with the owners of quality germplasm for the crop of interest, Stacey said. He added, however, that the big multinationals will be interested in partnering to leverage their investments in seed. Indeed, both DuPont and Monsanto, which spent $4.2 billion in its acquisitions of seed companies DeKalb Genetics and Delta and Pine, will be challenged to leverage investments of this size.

Life science companies have hailed biotechnology as opening an array of markets to the agricultural, food and feed industries ranging from manufacturing pharmaceuticals and plastics in plants to producing nutrition-added crops that grow in poor soils and can be irrigated with ocean water. Analysts have predicted growth in genetically modified crop seeds sales of more than 50 percent per year, reaching nearly $6 billion by 2002 (see BioCentury, Oct. 12, 1998).