Kansas Agricultural Scientist Convicted in Theft of Engineered Rice
WASHINGTON – A federal jury returned guilty verdicts today in the case of a Chinese scientist, who was charged with conspiring to steal samples of a variety of rice seeds from a Kansas biopharmaceutical research facility.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary B. McCord of the Justice Department’s National Security Division and U.S. Attorney Tom Beall of the District of Kansas made the announcement.
Weiqiang Zhang, 50, a Chinese national residing in Manhattan, Kansas, was convicted on one count of conspiracy to steal trade secrets, one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property and one count of interstate transportation of stolen property.
Evidence at trial established that Zhang worked as a rice breeder for Ventria Bioscience in Junction City, Kansas. Ventria develops genetically programmed rice to express recombinant human proteins, which are then extracted for use in the therapeutic and medical fields. Zhang has a master’s degree in agriculture from Shengyang Agricultural University in China and a doctorate degree from Louisiana State University.
According to trial evidence, Zhang acquired without authorization hundreds of rice seeds produced by Ventria and stored them at his residence in Manhattan. The rice seeds have a wide variety of health research applications and were developed to express either human serum albumin, contained in blood, or lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein found, for example, in human milk. Ventria used locked doors with magnetic card readers to restrict access to the temperature-controlled environment where the seeds were stored and processed.
Trial evidence demonstrated that in the summer of 2013, personnel from a crop research institute in China visited Zhang at his home in Manhattan. Zhang drove the visitors to tour facilities in Iowa, Missouri and Ohio. On Aug. 7, 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers found seeds belonging to Ventria in the luggage of Zhang’s visitors as they prepared to leave the United States for China.
The FBI’s Little Rock, Arkansas, Field Office and Kansas City, Missouri, Field Office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas investigated the case. Trial Attorney Matt Walczewski of the National Security Division, Trial Attorneys Brian Resler and Evan Williams of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Rask of the District of Kansas prosecuted the case.