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Biotech in Europe
Plant Genetics Systems (PGS) sets up a laboratory in Ghent, Belgium. PGS is an international joint venture between European investors and Advanced Genetic Systems (AGS), of Oakland, California, which holds 32% of the company’s stock. The deal is organized by Dan Adams, AGS founder, Chairman, and CEO. The operation is funded initially by the Swedish Hilleshög Sugar Refinery, Radar N.V., a Belgian food additives manufacturer, and a regional development agency of the Belgian government. Together, these founding organizations put in 400 million Belgian francs. The scientific basis for the company’ R&D efforts is provided by the research of pioneering agbio molecular biologists Marc Van Montagu and Jozef Schell at the University of Ghent, in Belgium. Under the direction of Van Montagu and Schell, the firm develops programs in weed control, insect control, and hybrid breeding for disease, pest, and stress resistance. In 1987, it becomes the first company to produce plants genetically-engineered for pest protection. Mark Vaeck leads a research group that expresses transgenes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in tobacco plants. The genes code for an insecticidal protein that afford protection from feeding damage by tobacco hornworm larvae. Vaeck et al. report the work in Nature. The company goes on to produce several successful lines of bioengineered products including StarLink Bt maize and LibertyLink canola, cotton, soybeans, and corn that contain a transgene conferring resistance to the herbicide glufosinate. StarLink maize becomes the subject of controversy in the U.S. in 2000. It has been approved only as animal feed, but is found in foods destined for human consumption, including Taco Bell taco shells. The product is pulled from the market by Aventis, which has by then acquired commercial rights. LibertyLink crops are the only herbicide-tolerant GMOs on the market other than Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® line. Plant Genetic Systems is acquired in 1995 by the German corporation, AgroEvo, then the world’s fourth largest agricultural chemicals manufacturer, after Novartis, Monsanto, and Zeneca. AgroEvo has since been swallowed by Novartis.