NSF awards 19 new projects to better undestand genetic processes in plants of economic importance

October 07, 2005

The National Science Foundation (NSF) made 19 new awards totaling $58.7 million in the eighth year of its Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP). The 2- to 5- year awards, ranging from $622,000 to $7.7 million, fund research and tools to reveal information in the genomes of economically important crop plants such as wheat and soybeans as well as increase understanding of the genetic control of plant processes including disease resistance, flavor development, seed growth and wood formation.

"PGRP-funded research is helping to unearth secrets rooted in plant genomes," said Mary Clutter, head of NSF's biological sciences directorate. "In addition to enabling discoveries in basic plant biology, these latest projects will expose a host of new students to cutting-edge plant genome research. Well-trained students are critical to the future of plant biology," Clutter continued.

The new awards, made to 36 U.S. institutions in 24 states, include three international collaborative projects. First-time PGRP award recipients include California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, Claflin University, Michigan Technological University, University of Puget Sound, University of South Carolina and University of Wyoming.

The genomes of economically important plants are often large and complex, but through in-depth studies scientists will uncover information that can be translated into new and improved products and practices. Plant genome research holds enormous promise for improving plants of all sizes, from small crop plants to towering trees.

Examples of awards targeting major crop plants include:

A project led by the University of Washington in Seattle investigates the poorly understood, yet widely accepted phenomenon of "hybrid vigor," whereby offspring turn out bigger and hardier than their parents.

Researchers at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign explore nitrogen responses in maize to elucidate the genetic basis for dramatically increased yields following fertilization. This project includes an NSF-supported Developing Country Collaboration with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria.

A University of California, Los Angeles-led project focuses on the soybean to identify all of the genes and regulatory networks required to make a seed. Knowledge gained from studying soybean seed, an important source of human and animal nutrition and a raw material for industrial applications, will likely be applicable to seeds from all plants.

Another subset of awards centers on understanding the genetics of trees. Trees are naturally important to produce oxygen, provide shade and fight soil erosion and also supply more than 5,000 items in our daily lives--from fuels and paper to fruit and medicines.

Studying trees has challenged researchers, in part because of the plants' large sizes and long life cycles. Three projects are developing and using genomic tools to better understand tree metabolism and development.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis study genetic variation associated with wood quality and disease resistance in loblolly pine, potentially developing new resources for tree breeding.

higan Technological University investigates the metabolic pathways leading to synthesis of salicylates, aspirin-related plant compounds that confer disease resistance in poplar trees.

Mississippi State University researchers examine the regulation of genes associated with the flowering process in poplar trees.

The PGRP, established in 1998 as part of the coordinated National Plant Genome Initiative by the Interagency Working Group on Plant Genomes of the National Science and Technology Council, has a long-term goal of advancing the understanding of the structure and function of genomes of plants of economic importance.

A complete list of the 2005 PGRP awards and project abstracts can be accessed at http://www.nsf.gov/bio/pubs/awards/pgr.htm.
NSF-PR 05-180

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5.47 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions.

Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $200 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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