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Building on its successful international effort to complete the genome sequence of Arabidopsis thaliana, a model species for understanding plants in general, the National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced 28 awards under its new 2010 Project. The awards total $43.8 million over four years and are the first under this initiative, which aims to identify within the next ten years how each of the plant's 25,000 genes function.
Selected from 106 competitive proposals, the newly funded activities include participants from 43 institutions in 20 states. The 2010 Project will have broad implications for biology, because Arabidopsis has emerged as the plant analog of the laboratory mouse. By studying this humble plant in the mustard family, scientists can better understand how all sorts of living organisms behave genetically, with potentially widespread applications for agriculture, medicine and energy.
"NSF is excited to begin this important endeavor of understanding the functions of each gene in Arabidopsis," said NSF director Rita Colwell. "While the task is daunting, it is also essential to this growing area of biotechnology research and its many applications. Only by understanding the fundamental processes of each gene can we piece together the puzzle of how DNA determines, for example, the rate of growth, resistance to disease and many other factors in plants."
Arabidopsis is a useful model because its entire genome consists of a relatively small set of genes that dictate when the weed will bud, bloom, sleep or seed. Compared to other plants, Arabidopsis also has far fewer "junk" DNA sequences that contain no genes. And the functional genes have counterparts in plants with much larger genomes, such as wheat, corn, rice, cotton and soybean.
For example, in a project led by New York University and including the University of California-San Diego and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, geneticists will apply the latest bioinformatic software tools to populate a publicly accessible web database cataloguing gene functions related to nitrogen metabolism. Nitrogen is a key element in the growth of all plants.
An estimated 30 percent of crop yield is lost to pests and diseases. Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill will study a network of genes involved in blight resistance. The scientists point to ten Arabidopsis genes whose functions are related through a particular disease-resistance pathway.
The University of Texas at Austin will take a systematic approach to automating the production of recombinant inbred strains of Arabidopsis. This will help plant scientists in general to map and identify genes in local wild populations of Arabidopsis, which has many variants across the world. By understanding the types' different evolutionary histories, the 2010 Project researchers will show how environmental variables such as soil, length of days, pests, moisture, temperature, and other factors influence plants' adaptability.
All project supported by the NSF 2010 Project are coordinated with other Arabidopsis functional genomic initiatives worldwide. A committee of international scientists will ensure open communication and rapid sharing of research data.
For a list of FY 2001 awards (with abstracts) from the 2010 Project, see: http://www.nsf.gov/bio/pubs/awards/2010fy01.htm