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NSF Supports 24 New Projects to Get at the Root of How Genes Control Plant Growth


Genome-enabled plant biology extends knowledge from model systems to economically important crops and development of novel genomic research tools

October 2, 2006

The National Science Foundation (NSF) made 24 new awards totaling $72.5 million in the ninth year of its Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP). The 2- to 5- year awards--ranging from $600,000 to $6.6 million--support research and tools to further knowledge about the genomes of economically important crop plants such as potato, poplar and corn, and will also reveal how networks of genes control basic plant processes.

“It is exciting to see the impact of genomics in new areas of plant biology, research and education” said James Collins, head of the NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate. “These innovative new projects will provide the basic discoveries leading to a greater understanding of how variations in plant genomes manifest as changes in growth and development in a range of environments. New discoveries improve the quality and yield of crops plants, and in the long term, lead to innovations that will support the bio-based economy of the 21st Century”.

The wealth of genomic knowledge and tools generated over the past 8 years of the PGRP will now enable researchers to uncover networks of genes that regulate plant development in response to environmental signals such as light, for example:

* To potentially broaden the geographic growing range of crops, which is in part controlled by available sunlight, researchers at Dartmouth College are investigating how gene networks in Brassica, a genus of plants that includes broccoli, cauliflower and mustard, function to detect light cues and trigger floral development.

* Scientists at Oregon State University will study the relationship between a plant’s gene networks, its molecular machinery and light absorption using the recently reported rice and poplar tree genome sequences as guides.

So-called “model plants” typically have “no frills” genomes and a short lifecycle that make basic genetic studies feasible. Information from model plants can then be exploited to better understand more complex crop plants. Two such examples are rice, a model for the cereals, and barrel medic, a model for legumes, a plant family that includes soybeans, peanuts, peas and alfalfa. Several new PGRP-supported projects will extend the knowledge gained from the sequenced genomes of rice and barrel medic, for example:

* The genomes of the cultivated rice species and its wild ancestral relative vary considerably. Investigators at Cornell University have found that introducing certain “wild genes” into the cultivated species confers superior performance for a variety of traits, including flowering time, seed size and seed number. They will further examine how different combinations of variant genes leads to enhanced qualities, or so-called “hybrid vigor.”

* Comparative genome tools developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis, will enable researchers to rapidly pinpoint genes for disease resistance in legumes using the barrel medic genome sequence as a reference. Among others, these tools will be used to study chickpea, cowpea and pigeonpea--important staple crops in India and Africa--through a developing country collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India.

Established in 1998 as part of the coordinated National Plant Genome Initiative by the Interagency Working Group on Plant Genomes of the National Science and Technology Council, the PGRP has a long-term goal of uncovering basic biological principles that will advance our understanding of the structure and function of genomes of plants of economic importance.

The new awards, made to 43 institutions in 30 states, include 10 international collaborations. First-time PGRP award recipients include Duke University, South Dakota State University, Tuskegee University and the University of Arkansas. A complete list of 2006 PGRP awards can be accessed at


Program Contacts
Jane Silverthorne, NSF (703) 292-8470

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 1,700 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes nearly 10,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.


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