"Maize is a very exciting genome, both in terms of the roles it has played in contemporary and historic plant genetics and because of its role in agriculture," said Richard Wilson, director of the GSC, professor of genetics and lead investigator on the project.
"It's a top food source for humans and animals and a leading US export."
Corn is certainly one of the most important economic crops, 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 will directly benefit consumers.
And with the world's population rapidly heading for the 7 billion mark, feeding everyone is a growing problem that has to be tackled now.
One important goal is therefore 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.
Unraveling the corn genome will also have enormous implications for other cereal crops besides corn, including 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 at Arizona university and a collaborator on the GSC project. "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."
Wilson added: "If we successfully work through maize with state-of-the-art sequencing technology and drive the sequencing costs down, then it's going to be easy to think about sequencing other important crops like soybean and sorghum on the heels of maize."
Scientists at the GSC will sequence a maize cultivar known as B73 that is commonly used in maize genetics research. Actual sequencing begins in December, with the first sequencing information to be made available to the public online starting in early 2006. Scientists estimate the project will take three years.
The maize genome's 2.5 billion base pairs in 10 chromosomes make it nearly as long as the human genome, which has 2.9 billion base pairs in 23 chromosomes. When completed, maize will be the largest plant genome sequenced.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy allocated a total of $32 million for sequencing maize. The GSC maize genome project will receive $29.5 million of that funding.
"It's exciting to see this contribution to agriculture come from the St. Louis community," said Robert Fraley, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto Corporation.
"Completion of the maize genome will allow agricultural researchers to identify new genes responsible for important traits like yield and drought tolerance, creating opportunities to bring additional value to farmers around the world."
Other collaborators on the GSC maize genome project include Rod Wing of the University of Arizona and W. Richard McKombie, Robert Martienssen, Doreen Ware and Lincoln Stein from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.