University of Arizona/BIO5 plant scientists to unravel maize genome

November 15, 2005

NOTE: This press release has been updated since it was originally posted.

Researchers at The University of Arizona's plant sciences department and UA's BIO5 Institute have received a $29 million federal grant as part of a consortium to unlock the genetic code of the corn plant. The knowledge gained from the Maize Genome Sequencing Project will enable plant scientists and breeders to improve agronomically important traits in cereal crops more rapidly. The National Science Foundation (NSF) chose the UA team and its partners from a highly competitive pool of applicants including the Broad Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute.

The National Science Foundation has selected a consortium of four research institutions to sequence the maize genome: The University of Arizona, Washington University in St. Louis, Iowa State University in Ames and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The UA team previously collaborated with Washington University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as part of an international consortium to unravel the rice genome sequence, which was published in Nature in August 2005.

The goal of the Maize Genome Sequencing Project is to unravel the complete DNA sequence of the maize plant and to determine the number of genes and their position on the chromosomes - the tiny bundles of DNA that form the storage units of genetic information.

The grant further strengthens and expands Arizona's leading position in genomics research, which is considered a key ingredient in building a leading-edge bioindustry. Genomics - the analysis of an organism's complete set of genes - provides the basis for the improvement of crops, development of new drugs or finding the ultimate causes for disease. The Battelle Memorial Institute's 2002 AZ Bioscience Roadmap, commissioned by the Flinn Foundation, identified UA's genomics research capabilities as one of the university's core strengths with high potential for leveraging of state investments.

"The genome sequence will tell us which genes we need to focus on to develop corn varieties that produce higher yield and better quality with less water on less land," said Wing, who is a professor in the department of plant sciences at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a member of BIO5.

Unraveling the corn genome will be a breakthrough with enormous implications for other cereal crops besides corn, including varieties important for Arizona, such as wheat, sorghum and millet.

"A lot of applications will result from this project," said Brian Larkins, a Regents' Professor in the department of plant sciences who works on enhancing the nutritional value of corn. "The cereals are very closely related to each other, so we can transfer a lot of what we learn about gene function in maize to other crops."

One important goal is to enhance drought resistance in corn and other cereal crops, which would greatly benefit regions with less favorable conditions for agriculture. Other improvements aim at increasing yield and nutritional value and optimizing the properties crucial for grain products such as flour, noodles and pasta.

"Once the corn genome sequence is in our hands, these advances can happen much faster," Wing said.

Corn is one of the most important economic crops in the United States, and, together with rice, accounts for 70 percent of worldwide food production. The production of corn-based products with enhanced nutritional value that are safer and less allergenic than the foods we eat today will directly benefit consumers. Corn plants will also prove useful in producing novel compounds, such as industrial feedstocks, biofuels and medicinal products.

Wing's group provides the framework for the project: a so-called physical map that covers about 95 percent of the maize genome. Using the map, the scientists will then generate a draft sequence to reveal the locations of the genes within stretches of so-called non-coding DNA. Only the gene-containing regions will then be sequenced in detail. This sequencing strategy enables the consortium to sequence the corn genome at a fraction of the cost that was necessary to decipher the human genome, which is only slightly larger than the corn genome.

"This grant reinforces the position of the UA as a world leader in plant genomics," said Vicki Chandler, director of BIO5 and a Regents' Professor in the department of plant sciences at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "It further exemplifies our exceptionally competitive position in attracting national funding for key areas such as genomics -- an invaluable asset for Arizona's developing bioindustry."

Wing's team will take advantage of the state-of-the-art genomics facilities in the Thomas W. Keating Building, the future home of BIO5, scheduled for completion in spring 2006.

"The new building will offer the increased space we need to expand our laboratory facilities for the project," Wing said. "It will also allow us to enhance capacities for computation. BIO5 makes large-scale endeavors like this possible by investing heavily in bioinformatics."

Deciphering billions of letters of genetic code yields vast amounts of data, which have to be stored, accessed and interpreted. BIO5's capabilities in bioinformatics help scientists manage and analyze complex data.

The software used to generate the genetic map was developed by Carol Soderlund, who holds a research faculty position at BIO5 and in the department of plant sciences at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Her computer program was used to build the physical maps of every large genome that has been sequenced to completion, including the human genome.

BIO5 is a collaborative bioresearch institute bringing together scientists from 5 disciplines--agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, basic science and engineering--to solve complex biological problems. BIO5 creates science, education and industry partnerships to disseminate knowledge and apply the knowledge gained to treat disease, feed humanity and preserve livable environments.
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University of Arizona

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