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Winter/Spring 2008 Vol. 8 No. 1

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©Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images Cracking the Code of Plant DNA

The Human Genome Project has received a great deal of attention with its promise of personalized treatments and therapies, but little is heard about the National Plant Genome Initiative (NPGI), a long-term venture working to uncover DNA structure and functions in plants. Now closing in on its 10th anniversary, NPGI's achievements and roadmap for the future are examined in a new report by the National Research Council.

The initiative has been extremely successful in its first decade, producing revolutionary breakthroughs in genome sequencing for various plants, including Arabidopsis (a plant related to cabbage and mustard), rice, and soon maize.

While the project has made huge strides, sequencing is only the first step to understanding how plants work and breeding them for specific performance characteristics. Ultimately, the goal of NPGI is to translate the knowledge gained into commercial innovations, such as higher yielding, more nutritious crops that grow in extreme conditions or plants for biofuel energy that have less impact on the environment and resources.

Nonetheless, the committee that wrote the report considers plant biology to be at the doorstep of unprecedented discovery. To keep the momentum moving forward, NPGI should broaden its mission by expanding gene sequencing, especially because this serves as the "backbone" on which all data and hypotheses depend.

Sequencing by itself is not a blueprint for understanding genome function, however. A systems-level approach is required to consider how the various components act in concert. Applied to NPGI's objectives, such an approach should be undertaken to better understand plant growth and development in controlled and relevant environments. From this research could stem the creation of computable "iPlants" that predict plant system behavior under a range of environmental conditions -- an ambitious objective that some liken to a biological equivalent of sending man to the moon. Essentially, the iPlant would be the basis for creating highly effective, novel plant strains for food, fuel, and fiber.

Moreover, to expand NPGI's efforts and adapt to the challenges ahead, recruitment of the best, broadly trained scientists in plant science is needed. Plant genomic analysis is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and scientists could be given incentives to enter the field from other disciplines such as computer science or statistics.   -- Jennifer Walsh

Achievements of the National Plant Genome Initiative and New Horizons in Plant Biology. Committee on the National Plant Genome Initiative: Achievements and Future Directions, Board on Life Sciences and Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2008, approx. 182 pp.; ISBN 0-309-11418-7; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $39.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Jeffery L. Dangl, John N. Couch Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The study was funded by the Interagency Working Group on Plant Genomes through the National Science Foundation and U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture.

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Copyright 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences