Scientists are set to build on existing knowledge relating to the influence botanical extracts may have on our health as US national body earmarks millions of dollars in funding for a range of new projects on cereals, fruits, legumes, and other economically key plants.
With an annual budget of $5 billion the National Science Foundation - an independent federal agency - said this week that 31 new grants in plant genome research had been awarded, involving 48 different institutions and totaling about $100 million.
Individually, the two- to five-year projects, awarded to universities across the country, will receive funding ranging from $600,000 to nearly $11 million. Some will focus on the impact of specific genes in a single species. Others will compare the complete genetic sequences of related plants.
The NSF's plant genome program - the study of an organism's entire set of genes - examines the structure and function of plant genes, particularly those important to agriculture, environmental concerns, energy and health.
Researchers at Yale University, for example, will use a new, high-throughput method call laser capture microdissection (LCM) to create a 'cellular atlas' that will show how individual genes are expressed in rice. A University of Georgia project will use LCM on maize plant cells to trace the gene expression that gives rise to leaves.
In addition, University of Missouri researchers will use a 'proteomics' approach to study how caster bean, soybean and canola plants produce oil. Proteomics focuses on an organism's inventory of proteins, and how proteins interact to build an organism and allow it to function.
A project led by Texas A&M university will use the sorghum genome map to tease out the networks of genes that control drought tolerance. A grass that originated in Africa, sorghum is now a key food source worldwide. It has evolved thick waxy leaves and a deep root system that allow it to grow in hot dry climates. Its genome sequence is also similar to those of other important cereals, such as rice, corn and wheat.
Two other projects, led by the University of Illinois and Clemson University, will develop genomic resources for the plant family Rosaceae, which includes apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, almonds, strawberries and raspberries.
For Mary Clutter, assistant director of NSF's directorate for biological sciences, this year's awards take advantage of the fruits of earlier genome projects to extend existing areas of research and to break entirely new ground.
"In key ways, these projects will expand what we know about the biology of the plant kingdom, including plants that have a major impact upon the lives of people around the world," Clutter said. "In a relatively short time, genomics has created massive amounts of data and innovative, adaptable tools for biological research. These now make it possible for scientists, wherever they are, to approach important, challenging questions in new ways."
Among the new projects are six new plant genome 'virtual centers', flexible collaborations of investigators at various institutions and of various expertise to focus on a particular research goal. One, for example, will develop a scientific-community resource for studying genome-wide gene expression in maize.
"With these centers, there are no geographical or disciplinary boundaries. They foster interactions with other research efforts, and, as with all of the plant genome projects, they freely share the outcomes of their studies," said Jane Silverthorne, who directs NSF's plant genome research program.