Upcoming 'Century Of Biology' Given Head Start By NSF Plant Genome Research Program Grants

September 28, 1998

The 21st century -- often called the century of biology -- has begun early. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing a boost to plant biology research through 23 Plant Genome Research Program: Collaborative Research and Infrastructure Projects awards totalling $85 million over the next five years.

The new research will contribute to a better understanding at the genome level of the inner workings of all plants, including economically important crops like maize (corn), soybean, tomato and cotton.

"These awards from the first year of the NSF plant genome research program represent a wide spectrum of activities ranging from pilot technique development projects to comprehensive, interdisciplinary, multi-institutional virtual centers," says Mary Clutter, assistant director of NSF for biological sciences. "Future results from these awards are expected to provide the fundamental knowledge and new technologies essential for the advancement of plant biology as well as crop improvement. Novel, value-added, plant-based products will be the likely result.

Outcomes of these grants will be exploited by the agricultural sector and other plant-based industries in developing improved plants of economic value."

Research funded at the University of Missouri at Columbia for example, will involve enhancing the content and effectiveness of a maize genome database. Researchers will look at gene selection in maize, and link new information to this database. These resources will provide for much greater efficiency in mapping and identifying the 50,000 to 80,000 genes of maize, say scientists.

Once the resources, knowledge, and database are complete, the possibilities are endless, according to University of Missouri researcher Edward Coe. Benefits of this research include better crop yields, reduced fertilizer requirements, and better quality food, adds Coe. "The end result is a better quality of life, not only for us, but for the entire planet."

In other research, scientist Thea Wilkins of the University of California at Davis will study the genome of the world's leading natural fiber, cotton. Cotton is a major contributor to the U.S. and global economy, providing about 55% of the fiber used in textile manufacturing. Wilkins and collaborators will investigate certain cotton genes that impart unique, economically important properties to the fiber. "Enhanced understanding of this complex trait holds great promise for the genetic improvement of cotton," Wilkins believes.

The tomato is another economically-important crop being studied by scientists funded through this NSF program. Researcher Steven Tanksley of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and collaborators will investigate how genes control the development and ripening of tomatoes, as well as the plants' responses to infection.

Genes often work together when plants develop tolerance for environmental stresses. Grantee Nina Fedoroff of Pennsylvania State University will attempt to identify groups of genes whose patterns change when a plant is environmentally stressed. Fedoroff will use ozone and pathogen attack as experimental stressors in mustard plants. Fedoroff's research involves development of a novel new technology, called a DNA microarray detection system. This system, it is hoped, will eventually be used by researchers throughout the field of plant genome biology.

The NSF Plant Genome Research Program is the initial phase of an interagency National Plant Genome Research Initiative recommended in May 1997 by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
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Media contact:
Cheryl Dybas
(703) 306-1070/cdybas@nsf.gov

Program contact:
David Meinke
(703) 306-1470/dmeinke@nsf.gov

Editors: For a complete list of plant genome research program awardees, see: http://www.nsf.gov/bio/pubs/awards/genome98.htm
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National Science Foundation

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