University of Washington researchers map rice genome

April 03, 2000

Researchers at the University of Washington, under the sponsorship of Monsanto Company, have produced a working draft of the rice plant genome. This will give scientists the potential to dramatically improve the production of rice, a vital food source for half of the world's population.

Rice is the largest genome and first plant to be mapped in a working draft form. Rice is important because it is a model species for learning about traits such as yield, hybrid vigor, and single and multigenic disease resistance of all grass plants including wheat and corn. In addition, deciphering the genetic code of rice is expected to lead to development of new varieties of rice that will produce greater yields, be more resistant to pests and disease, and grow in different types of climates and soils.

The UW rice genome project was directed by Dr. Leroy Hood and managed by Dr. Gregory G. Mahairas. Hood currently is president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. Mahairas is the director of the High Throughput Sequencing Center in the UW's Department of Molecular Biotechnology.

"To achieve these results is a significant accomplishment by Dr. Hood and Dr. Mahairas," said Dr. Paul G. Ramsey, UW vice president for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. "It will provide valuable knowledge that may ultimately be used to address food supply issues throughout the world. We're very pleased that the University of Washington's commitment to genomics research is producing results that will benefit all of humanity."

Monsanto Company financed the research project that also tested a method for rapidly sequencing large genomes. The method had been espoused in a scientific paper written by Hood. Monsanto announced today it has agreed to share the rice genome sequencing data with members of the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project (IRGSP), a consortium established to sequence the entire genetic make-up of rice.

Data from the rice genome project will be made available to Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), which serves as the lead agency of the IRGSP. At a news conference held in Tokyo earlier today, MAFF announced that it will accept Monsanto's data, and will distribute it to all members of the IRGSP.

"It is gratifying to see the successful application of the theory we developed more than three years ago," Hood said. "It will reduce by several years the schedule for creating a complete detailed map of the rice genome."

Mahairas' staff of more than 200 worked on the research project. The lab included 80 high-throughput DNA sequencers, robotic machines and powerful data processing computers.

"Most of the sequence will allow researchers of the IRGSP to proceed more rapidly to the functional genomics phase of this project--understanding what the genes really do," Mahairas said.

The "working draft" status means the mapping is complete and can be understood in its totality, Mahairas said. "There are still some missing pieces, like a word or two missing in paragraphs, but you can read and start to understand the entire book of life for rice."
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