UGA named recipient of $5.6 million grant from NSF for corn improvement

July 19, 2004

Corn is by far the most important cereal grain grown in the United States, and a project at the University of Georgia that could one day lead to the development of artificial corn chromosomes has just been awarded a five-year grant by the National Science Foundation for $5.6 million.

Artificial chromosomes could provide breakthroughs in corn production. For instance, genes protecting crops against drought or insects could be "built" into new cultivars, making it possible to grow the grain on lands where weather or other conditions make it impossible.

"This is a significant grant for an important and growing program at the University of Georgia," said President Michael F. Adams. "The size of the award makes it clear that the National Science Foundation values the work taking place here."

The principal investigator of the new grant said the grant will strengthen an already expanding program here.

"As far as I know, we are the only group funded at this level working on developing artificial chromosomes in corn," said Kelly Dawe, an associate professor in the UGA department of plant biology. "It just points out the strength in our entire group here working on cereal genomics."

Another co-investigator on the grant is Wayne Parrott, a professor in the department of crop and soil science at UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Other collaborators on the grant include James Birchler of the University of Missouri; Jiming Jiang of the University of Wisconsin; and Gernot Presting of the University of Hawaii.

One of the crucial areas of the research will revolve around centromeres, large repetitive DNA regions that, among other things, control the movement of chromosomes during cell division. Artificial chromosomes offer the potential to introduce many genes at once without the complications that go with inserting genes over many generations. While some labs, including those at UGA, have made some progress in understanding centromeres, years of work lie ahead in knowing enough about them to construct artificial chromosomes in corn.

While work on creating artificial chromosomes in human beings has been going on for some time, the studies have considerable ethical questions which are less of an issue with plants. Already new avenues of research have been opened in plant studies by the publication of the genetic map of centromeres in a plant called Arabidopsis, which is widely used in laboratory studies.

Corn, unfortunately, presents much more difficult problems when it comes to understanding the function of centromeres. Still, the payoff could be enormous. (In 2003 farmers produced some 259 millions tons of corn in the United States, vastly more than wheat, which was in second place with 12 million tons.)

"Our long-term goals are to better understand the organization of centromeres, unravel their evolution and its consequences for function and structure, and use that information to create artificial chromosomes," said Dawe.

An important part of the new research effort will be a minority outreach effort. The plant genomics faculty at UGA has approved the establishment of a new undergraduate research initiative that will advance plant research on campus. The program, called Georgia Research Opportunities for Undergraduate Program (GROUP) will give students a chance to work on the corn project with world-class scientists.

The new grant continues work that is drawing international acclaim for plant geneticists at UGA.

"We feel that people don't recognize the percentage of grants coming here from plants," said Dawe. "It's a substantial fraction of the overall amount. We have one of the world's strongest plant genomics groups." He praised former Vice President for Research Joe Key and outgoing dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Wyatt Anderson, for being instrumental in promoting plant research.

The team at UGA involves a collaboration between scientists in arts and sciences and agriculture. In addition to Dawe, those in arts and sciences include Michael Scanlon, Lee Pratt and Susan Wessler in plant biology and Jeff Bennetzen in genetics. Those from agriculture include Andrew Paterson, Jeff Dean and Peggy Ozias-Akins.

The grant is part of the National Science Foundation's Plant Genome Research Program, which began in 1998. In 2003, the NSF awarded a team led by UGA a grant of $3.9 million for a project called "Functional Analyses of Genes Involved in Meristem Organization and Leaf Initiation." Scanlon is principal investigator on that project.

University of Georgia

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