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Stacked in trim rows along a bank of south-facing windows, the petri dishes at Divergence Inc.'s Creve Coeur laboratory house the potential to insulate future crops from roundworms, deadly parasites that every year destroy an estimated 7 to 9 billion dollars' worth of domestic plants. Each dish holds a soybean root system. By exposing the roots to roundworms, researchers hope to identify genes essential to the parasitic worm's existence.
"What we want to do is find a way to shut down the function of that particular gene," explains Divergence chief executive officer Derek Rapp. "That would lead to the killing of that worm in a way that is not dangerous to the environment or the plant."
With 23 employees and a potentially effective and lucrative product, Divergence is a case study in how small biotech firms can benefit from close proximity to large research institutions. Many of the company's researchers hail from nearby Washington University, Monsanto and Saint Louis University.
Divergence is also one of nine companies housed at the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, a nonprofit plant- and life-sciences incubator on Monsanto's well-tended Creve Coeur campus. Funded in large part by the Monsanto Fund, the Nidus Center furnishes start-ups with well-appointed laboratories, offices and communal use of machines that would otherwise be out of reach for the fledgling firms.
"I understand those machines cost a half-million dollars each," says Rapp, marveling at a pair of massive stainless-steel sterilizing machines. "The Nidus Center allows us to focus on the work we've set out to do as a company, rather than the infrastructural stuff that is really a hassle."
For many life-sciences proponents in the St. Louis region, companies like Divergence represent not only the great hope for a pest-free agricultural future, but also a key to the economic regeneration of the region.
An unlikely contender, St. Louis now competes with Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area to attract ever more researchers and start-up firms. City boosters hope that developments like Cortex One at the corner of Forest Park Parkway and Boyle Avenue will become an anchor in an emerging 173-acre "biotech neighborhood" planned to cultivate a homegrown biotech industry. There's also a lot of money at stake: Each year, Washington University brings home more than $400 million in federal research grants. There are an estimated 187 plant- and life-science enterprises in the region whose workers earn roughly $63,000 per year, according to a 2002 study conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit scientific research trust. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are more than 80,000 regional workers employed in the biosciences sector, a broad category including researchers, doctors and entrepreneurs.
"St. Louis is a major center for biomedical research and plant-science research," says physician and former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth. "The life sciences are going to be very important in the future, and we should be a part of it."
One major obstacle, however, stands in the way: the Missouri anti-abortion lobby and its muscular opposition to embryonic stem-cell research.
"Right to Life will not sit silent whenever you're killing a human embryo," says Susan Klein, legislative liaison for Missouri Right to Life. "There's no reason for us to sacrifice the protection of human life in order to advance our economy."
Using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have developed the ability to replace the nucleus of embryonic cells with those of mature cells. The technique is alluring to researchers because embryonic stem cells can mature into any type of cell, a quality scientists say could eventually lead to therapies and cures for now-incurable diseases like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's.
"This holds the greatest promise of any technique that I've come across," says Steven Teitelbaum, Messing professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University. "We should be moving forward on all fronts."
Opponents of the research, though, consider the collection of embryonic cells used in the research to be a developing human embryo, and say the cells should therefore be accorded the rights and privileges of person.
"Embryonic stem-cell research is a stepping stone for reproductive cloning," maintains Klein. "We do not oppose cures for diseases. We do oppose embryonic stem-cell research: the creation and killing of one human life for another."
The issue has proved a political maelstrom in Jefferson City, as it has in legislative hallways across the country. Republican state senator Matt Bartle has repeatedly introduced legislation that would criminalize both embryonic stem-cell research and any cure derived from the technique. At the same time, Governor Matt Blunt has infuriated pro-life supporters with his repeated pledge to veto any legislation banning stem-cell research.
With the backing of Washington University and the Kansas City-based Stowers Institute for Medical Research, among others, the Coalition for Lifesaving Cures has meanwhile launched an initiative campaign for a constitutional amendment that would ban human cloning in the state while protecting embryonic stem-cell research.
While Missouri wrestles with the issue, other states have moved in a decidedly pro-research direction. California has earmarked $3 billion in state funds to support stem-cell research, and Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich recently signed an executive order freeing up $10 million in funding to lure researchers. Last August the Illinois governor sent letters to 30 Missouri researchers inviting them to resettle across the Mississippi.