Microsoft Co. founder Bill Gates now has the country's richest charitable foundation, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported yesterday.

Gates and his wife, Melinda, have consolidated their two charitable foundations and donated an additional $6 billion to the new Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bringing its total worth to $17.1 billion. The couple decided to merge the William H. Gates Foundation and the Gates Learning Foundation so they could broaden their focus on learning and global health, foundation co-chairwoman Patty Stonesifer said.

The Chronicle said the David and Lucile Packard Foundation is the second wealthiest, with assets of $13 billion. The Ford Foundation, with $11.4 billion, is third.

The world's largest foundation is the London-based Wellcome Trust, with assets of $19.2 billion.

But the Chronicle reports that the Gates Foundation could surpass the Wellcome Trust if the charity's namesakes keep giving.

"Bill and Melinda have made a gift of about $5 billion every quarter," said Stonesifer. While she would not say whether the couple plans to make another gift of similar size before year's end, she said she expects that the general pattern of giving "will continue."

CAPTION: Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and wife, Melinda, merged foundations.