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New Breed of Beet Geneticists Unraveling Sugar Beet Genome

By Don Comis
April 1, 2004

A "new guard" of geneticists at the Agricultural Research Service is leading a genetic revolution in the sugar beet industry, with funding from the Beet Sugar Development Foundation (BSDF) of Denver, Colo. During the past decade, the ARS scientists have been changing their breeding strategy from trait-based to gene-based selection, and in the past five years have begun a project to map the sugar beet genome.

The ARS group is one of just a few in the world and the only one in the United States working on the sugar beet genome. The group includes J. Mitchell McGrath, who heads a research team at the ARS Sugar Beet and Bean Research Unit at East Lansing, Mich.; plant pathologist John Weiland at ARS' Sugar Beet and Potato Research Unit at Fargo, N.D.; plant geneticist Leonard Panella of ARS' Sugar Beet Research Unit at Fort Collins, Colo.; and Robert Lewellen, plant geneticist at ARS' Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit at Salinas, Calif.

Already, McGrath's group and two independent groups in Germany have deposited more than 20,000 ESTs (expressed sequence tags) into the National Center for Biotechnology Information's GenBank site. These tags identify probably one-third to one-half of the 30,000 genes thought to make up the functional part of the sugar beet genome.

McGrath worked with Weiland and a contract firm to package a BAC (bacterial artificial chromosomes) "library." This type of "library" uses safe strains of bacteria to store sugar beet DNA. These sequences are then either screened with genetic markers, or compared with sequences of known genes, to connect them to possible traits. Each clone in the library of 38,400 cloned bacteria stores a different DNA sequence from the sugar beet's genome. Panella and Lewellen also collaborated on the library.

Under a Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the BSDF, ARS is charged with developing basic germplasm lines and releasing them to the foundation, for distribution to BSDF members.

Read more about the research in the April issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is USDA's chief scientific research agency.