Chinese scientist Weiqiang Zhang was sentenced on April 4 to more than 10 years in a federal prison for conspiring to steal samples of genetically altered rice seeds from his employer, the Kansas biotech firm Ventria Biosciences.
A Kansas jury had convicted Zhang in February 2017 on theft charges, including conspiring to steal trade secrets and giving them to a visiting delegation of scientists from a Chinese crop research institute.
Zhang, 51, a rice breeder, helped develop gene-altered rice designed to express recombinant proteins.
Zhang’s case is similar to a number of others in which scientists have stolen intellectual property from their employer and given it to researchers in other countries.
For instance, Dow AgroSciences researcher Kexue Huang pled guilty in 2011 to stealing trade secrets from Dow Chemical and Cargill and passing them on to Chinese researchers. In 2010, DuPont engineer Michael Mitchell was sentenced to 18 months in prison for passing on DuPont’s aramid fiber trade secrets to South Korea’s Kolon Industries.
According to court documents and evidence the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) presented at the trial, Zhang’s role in the conspiracy surfaced in August 2013 when U.S. customs agents discovered multiple packets of Ventria rice seed in the luggage and carry-on bags of a delegation from a Chinese crop research institute. The group was headed back to China after a tour of U.S. agricultural facilities that included a visit to Zhang’s home.
Some of the seed was packaged in makeshift containers, including a newspaper page folded into an envelope and a plastic bag from a Best Western Hotel.
Zhang, who has a masters degree from Shengyang Agricultural University and a Ph.D. in agricultural genetics from Louisiana State University, stole hundreds of rice seeds from Ventria and stored them in his home prior to the delegation’s visit, DOJ said. The seeds included varieties developed to produce human serum albumin, contained in blood, and lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein found in human milk.
Separately, another scientist admitted he was part of the conspiracy and knew about plans to steal the rice on behalf of the visiting Chinese delegation, according to the DOJ. In 2016, Wengui Yan, a geneticist who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Dale Bumpers National Research Center in Stuttgart, Ark., admitted he lied to the FBI about the plans.
Zhang and Yan had both made arrangements for the delegation’s visit and hosted the group on their U.S. tour. Also, both had visited the delegates in China prior to the tour, a fact they concealed from their employers, according to the DOJ.
Yan, who has a Ph.D. in plant genetics from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, is still awaiting sentencing.