ISU Plant Scientists Awarded $5.5 million for Plant Genome Research

February 24th, 2002

AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University faculty affiliated with the Plant Sciences Institute have received five research grants totaling $5.5 million in the National Science Foundation's Plant Genome Research Program.

They are among 24 new grants that were awarded to 109 researchers at 39 institutions in 27 states.

With five grants each, Iowa State and Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, led the nation in securing the competitive federal research funding.

NSF's plant genome program was designed to build an understanding of the structure and function of plant genes important to agriculture, environmental management, energy and health. Projects seek to understand, at the whole genome scale, how plants grow and what controls important plant traits.

Iowa State faculty will lead three of the research projects and are sub-contractors on two others.

Kan Wang, director of the Plant Transformation Facility and an agronomy research scientist, will lead researchers from Purdue University, the University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State University to establish improved plant transformation technologies for maize.

Plant transformation involves transferring specific genes into cells and growing the modified cells into whole plants. "Despite new technologies, transforming some crop plants—such as maize—is a scientific and technical challenge," Wang said. "Current technology is limited by low efficiency and throughput, with performance that is sometimes unpredictable and undesirable."

Wang's $4.2 million, five-year project will establish efficient maize transformation systems and make them available to researchers in the public sector. Wang and her colleagues will enhance transgene integration and expression; investigate alternative transformation protocols using non-tissue culture approaches; and expand transformation to additional maize inbred lines. They also will train research staffs and organize transformation workshops for researchers.

Thomas Peterson, associate professor of zoology and genetics and agronomy, received a $648,549, three-year grant to develop a new genetic technology useful for plant genomics research. The new tool will delete large portions of DNA in plant genomes quickly and efficiently.

"Most of the DNA in plant genomes does not appear to have any function. Plants don't seem to have an efficient means for getting rid of it, so it tends to accumulate," Peterson said. "Researchers may know that an important gene is located in a particular region. However, it's often difficult to find the gene because it's embedded in the non-functional DNA. By making big deletions, a researcher can remove the non-functional DNA and more quickly pinpoint the gene they want."

Peterson and his colleagues have already found a natural plant transposon that makes the deletions in the chromosomes of a living plant. By looking at how the plant is affected, the researchers can identify the traits controlled by the deleted genes.

Volker Brendel, professor of zoology and genetics and statistics, will develop a plant genome database and analysis tools with the $158,996, two-year grant he received. Brendel


will develop a Web-based database of plant genomic sequences that correspond to fragments of genes that are actively transcribed under particular conditions.

"The database organizes the sequences into groups that represent unique genes. The fragments are annotated and, whenever possible, linked to their genomic DNA origins," Brendel said. "The database will provide snapshots of the current knowledge of plant gene composition and facilitate our understanding of plant genetics and evolution."

In separate research, Brendel will be a subcontractor for a five-year University of California research project on the regulation of inflorescence architecture in maize. The researchers will identify the genes that determine the fates of seed-producing floral meristem and investigate how these genes are controlled. Brendel will lead the computational data management and analysis. Brendel's subsequent bioinformatics work will focus on designing and using new tools for the analysis of the microarray data from the research.

Patrick Schnable, professor, agronomy and zoology and genetics, was awarded a two-year grant as subcontractor for Kansas State University researchers who are studying the functional genomics of rice. He will set up microarrays to rapidly identify rice genes that are differentially regulated during infection.


Kan Wang, Plant Transformation Facility, (515) 294-4429

Thomas Peterson, Zoology and Genetics and Agronomy, (515) 294-6345

Volker Brendel, Zoology and Genetics and Statistics, (515) 294-9884

Patrick Schnable, Agronomy and Zoology and Genetics, (515) 294-0975

Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778