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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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National Program 302: Plant Biological and Molecular Processes
Program Rationale
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NP302 - Program Rationale


Crop yields are increasing by approximately 1 percent per year in the United States.  This increase is the result of coordinated advances in plant genetics, crop science and agronomy, crop protection, horticulture, soil science, agricultural engineering, and global carbon dioxide increases.  As good as this record is, though, it is unlikely to keep pace with current and future increases in world food demand.  In addition, it is clear that quality, safety, diversity, and security of the food supply must be improved even as production is increased.  Better food safety and security, crop protection, crop yield, and crop quality are immense and difficult problems whose solutions require fundamental scientific breakthroughs.


Often, when complex problems seem to defy solution, new approaches are needed.  New approaches, however, require new knowledge.  These gaps are filled by this program of fundamental, long-term targeted research.  The importance of a long-term, fundamental research program is highlighted by current advances in agriculture.  Many of today's exciting developments are based upon yesterday's fundamental research, most prominently molecular biology and genetic engineering.  Bioengineered herbicide-resistant crops, for example, are revolutionizing how herbicides are used, offering not only better weed management, but also conferring significant benefits to the environment.  New molecular technology is increasing the scope and the pace of plant breeding.  The genomes of corn, sorghum, grape, cacao, tomato, soybean, and the model grass, Brachypodium, are being completely sequenced, providing access to any gene in these genomes and enabling the identification of similar genes in other plants.  The benefits of these advances have barely been tapped.


The technological advances leading to today's agriculture have depended upon knowledge of the mechanisms of biological processes, i.e., the individual steps, as well as a more holistic knowledge of how the processes affect characteristics of the integrated organism or plant community.  Fundamental long-term research into mechanisms creates the knowledge from which science can improve biological processes, and thereby improve crop performance or crop characteristics.  In a real sense, this research helps the United States ensure the security of its food supply.  Nonetheless, fundamental long-term research, by its very nature, is high-risk.  This means the utility of the new approach is not known until substantial effort is invested, and new knowledge is generated.  In addition, it is by definition reductionist, with a focus on understanding systems “one piece at a time.”  As a result, it can often be highly specialized.


Addressing these special circumstances by ARS requires a national program with long-term, fundamental research as its major theme.  The Plant Biological and Molecular Processes National Program conducts core fundamental research for long-term advances in crop production, protection, product value, and food safety.  This National Program emphasizes expanding knowledge of biological mechanisms but does overlap considerably with other National Programs that focus primarily on applications of knowledge to solve problems.  Thus, the Plant Biological and Molecular Processes Program will be important both to those who depend on the generation of new fundamental knowledge and to those who deploy that knowledge to solve agricultural problems.  Through close associations with other national programs that are more product-oriented, the Plant Biological and Molecular Processes National Program will identify innovative possibilities and work to turn these into reality.

Last Modified: 11/7/2008
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