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Madison Scientists Share In NSF Grant To Identify The Role Of Key Plant Genes

Two University of Wisconsin-Madison molecular biologists will receive $1.8 million over three years to help develop a system to rapidly identify the function of genes specific to plants.

Michael Sussman and Richard Amasino, along with colleagues at Michigan State University, Stanford University and Yale University, will share in a three-year, $8.7 million National Science Foundation grant coordinated by Pamela R. Green of Michigan State University. Scientists at the four universities will work together to provide plant biologists across the United States with a set of powerful tools to reveal the function and relationships of the 20,000 or more genes in plants.

The grant is one of 20 awarded in October in the first year of NSF”s plant genome initiative, which targets genomic studies of food crops, such as corn and soybeans, and other commercially important plants. However, the UW-Madison scientists and their colleagues will be developing techniques using Arabidopsis, a small plant in the mustard family.

“The impact of our work will extend far beyond Arabidopsis,” says Sussman, an expert on plant membrane proteins. “We expect that most of the genes we identify in Arabidopsis will be important in crops and other plants of commercial value.”

Arabidopsis has become the favorite model plant of scientists and was the first plant selected to be sequenced. Several years ago NSF began an effort to sequence all of the plant”s genes, according to Sussman, who directs the UW Biotechnology Center and is a member of the Department of Horticulture in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. About 30 percent of the Arabidopsis genes have been sequenced and the task will be completed in two or three years. Researchers from the four universities will be building their work on that foundation.

By next fall, the UW-Madison biologists will develop a facility to serve researchers around the country by creating Arabidopsis plants with selective mutations or “gene knockouts.”

“You can”t tell what a gene is doing unless you disable or knock out that specific gene before evaluating how the resulting plant responds under a range of conditions,” Sussman says. He and colleagues described a technique for creating knockouts two years ago in research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a Science magazine article last May, Sussman”s laboratory used the technique to evaluate a gene that controls potassium movement into plant cells.

Scientists at other universities will be developing DNA microarrays, also called “DNA chips,” for Arabidopsis. With a new DNA chip for Arabidopsis, researchers could determine which of the plant”s genes are switched on and producing proteins and which are inactive. About the size of a microscope slide, DNA chips allow scientists to study gene expression patterns in different parts of a plant under a variety of environmental conditions. The technique can also be used to screen mutants for gene knockouts.

The combination of the gene-knockout and DNA-chip techniques will enormously accelerate research on plant genes and what they do.