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Sleuthing of Plant Genes Speeds Ahead of Schedule

By Marcia Wood
January 25, 1999

An ambitious international venture to reveal the structure of genes in a cousin of mustard is racing about four years ahead of schedule. This means the first essentially complete catalog of all genes in a typical plant's life cycle, from seed to flower to fruit, may be completed next year.

The project aims at hastening the discovery of important genes in crop plants. But it relies on a botanical "lab rat" named Arabidopsis thaliana. This flowering plant has much less genetic material than corn, tomatoes or wheat. But information about its genes should apply to thousands of plants.

The scientists sleuthing the Arabidopsis genome originally estimated they would finish by 2004, according to molecular biologist Athanasios Theologis with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. He leads Arabidopsis research at the Plant Gene Expression Center jointly operated in Albany, Calif., by ARS and the University of California, Berkeley. ARS is the USDA’s chief scientific arm.

Theologis collaborates with scientists at Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., and the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa. Researchers at four other U.S. labs and in Asia and Europe are also scrutinizing Arabidopsis' genetic material.

To date, the California and Pennsylvania scientists have identified the structure of about 1,500 Arabidopsis genes. They have an estimated 6,000 left to decipher.

The researchers promptly post their new information on the Internet. That databank also displays structural details of genes from other living things including humans and mice. Scientists can scan the database for matches, shortening the time it would take to uncover a gene's function.

Once plant biotechnologists discover the structure and function of a useful gene--for example, one for disease resistance--they may move it into other plants. An article in the January issue of Agricultural Research magazine tells more. View it on the World Wide Web at:


Scientific contact: Athanasios Theologis, ARS/University of California at Berkeley Plant Gene Expression Center, 800 Buchanan St., Albany, CA 94710, phone (510) 559-5911, fax (510) 559-5678,