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Photo, caption follows:
These photos illustrate the first step in the root expression map technique.
Credit: Ken Birnbaum, New York University

How Are Living Things Organized? After an international effort, Arabidopsis thaliana, the mustard plant, became the first plant to have its genome sequence--the roadmap of its genes--completed. Following this, the National Science Foundation (NSF), a major funder of this effort, launched Arabidopsis 2010, a program to determine the function of all Arabidopsis genes by 2010.

Focusing on the root of the mustard plant, a research team led by Duke University biologist Philip Benfey created a detailed mosaic of cells showing where and when some 22,000 of the plant's roughly 28,000 genes are activated within growing tissue. This "gene expression map" is helping scientists track how a complex living tissue ultimately arises from the blueprint of thousands of genes.

The results are the first to demonstrate this level of understanding of genes for any organism. It marks the first time that the vast majority of an organism's genes have been tracked as they switch on and off as cells grow, continually divide and ultimately differentiate to build specialized tissue.

The ability to track genes on this scale is critical to answering one of biology's basic, yet most puzzling questions: How do distinct yet coordinated organs and specialized cells arise from an endless division of cells that initially seemed very similar?

The researchers, funded by NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate, found that different types of mustard plant root cells tended to have particular sets of genes that were clustered together on certain chromosomes. Understanding these patterns of cell types and gene clusters is helping biologists decipher the genetic machinery of development, and may eventually lead to new ways to improve crops and domestic animals.

How will studies of neuroanatomy help us understand life forms as different as dinosaurs and humans? [Next]