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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 99-56 - September 23, 1999

Media contact:

 Cheryl Dybas

 (703) 292-8070

Program contact:

 Jane Silverthorne

 (703) 306-1470

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

NSF Grants Provide Boost to Research on Inner Workings of Plants

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing a boost to plant biology research through 15 grants totaling $62 million over the next five years.

"The awards [from the second year of the NSF Plant Genome Research Program: Collaborative Research and Infrastructure Projects] will continue to build on some of the exciting advances coming out of the work funded last year," says Mary Clutter, assistant director of NSF for biological sciences. "We can now begin to gain a comprehensive understanding of the functions of the genes required for normal plant development. In addition to advancing basic plant biology, this kind of work is the foundation of ongoing efforts toward the rapid and systematic development of improved crops. Eventual outcomes will be of importance both to agriculture and to industries using plant-based materials."

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), pine, rice, and potato.

Some important crop plants such as maize and wheat have large, complex genomes. However, only parts of these genomes contain genes. Scientists are just beginning to find out where the genes are and how they are organized. At Iowa State University, research will focus on detailed mapping of new genetic markers in maize. Research funded at the University of Wisconsin at Madison will provide an optical map of the rice genome currently being sequenced as part of an international project. This is a first step toward developing a comprehensive understanding of the organization of this genome. Complementary research funded at Purdue University and Rutgers University will tie together gene content and organization in of the barley, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat genomes.

A first step in discovering the functions of individual plant genes will be to find out when and where they are "turned on" during the life of the plant. Research funded at the University of Pennsylvania and The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, will study such gene expression on a chromosome and genome-wide scale. This information will be invaluable in getting the first snapshots of how plants develop at the molecular level, researchers believe.

Unlike animal cells, plant cells are surrounded by walls largely made of cellulose. The properties of plant cell walls have a dramatic impact on the structure and quality of plant products. It is the materials in plant cell walls that constitute the bulk of wood and wood-based products. However, our knowledge of how these walls are made and assembled is still in its infancy. Research funded at Michigan State University will focus on how components of the cell wall are made in Arabidopsis and maize. Research funded at North Carolina State University will examine the genes related to changes in wood quality in loblolly pine. Pines are an economically important crop in the U.S. and yield the bulk of wood pulp for paper products. An understanding of the genes influencing wood formation will eventually allow breeding of trees with enhanced properties for wood and pulp production.

Some interactions between plants and microorganisms are not beneficial to the plant and lead to crop losses. Work at the University of California at Davis will examine plant genes involved in resistance to pathogens. Studies of the structure and function of these genes in the model plant Arabidopsis will be extended to soybean, rice and maize, allowing the development of tools for manipulation of plant disease resistance. Research at the University of California at Berkeley will focus on developing additional tools for analyzing the response of potato to late potato blight, caused by a fungal pathogen. Late potato blight is a serious threat to production of potato, a crop of worldwide importance.


For more information on FY99 Awards for Plant Genome Research Program Collaborative Research and Infrastructure Projects, see:



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