April 5 (UPI) -- A Chinese scientist was sentenced to more than 10 years in federal prison Wednesday for stealing genetically engineered rice.
Weiqiang Zhang, 51, a Chinese national and legal permanent resident of the United States, was convicted on Feb. 15, 2017 of 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.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Carlos Murguia in the District of Kansas sentenced Zhang to 121 months.
The case goes back to 2013, when Zhang worked as a rice breeder for Ventria Bioscience in Junction City, Kansas. According to prosecutors, Zhang stole hundreds of genetically engineered seeds and stored them at his apartment in Manhattan, Kansas.
"The rice seeds have a wide variety of health research applications and were developed to produce either human serum albumin, contained in blood, or lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein found, for example, in human milk," the Justice Department said. "Ventria spent millions of dollars and years of research developing its seeds and cost-effective methods to extract the proteins, which are used to develop lifesaving products for global markets. Ventria used locked doors with magnetic card readers to restrict access to the temperature-controlled environment where the seeds were stored and processed."
During the summer of 2013, officials from a crop research institute in China visited Zhang at his home. Days later, when those visitors were returning to China, U.S. Customs and Border Protection found Ventria seeds in their luggage.
"Cross-border intellectual property theft not only hurts victim companies, it also threatens our national security," Assistant Attorney General Demers said in a statement.