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Plant's Genetic Code Deciphered

A milestone was unveiled this week in the field of genetics. An international team of scientists announced they have deciphered the genetic code of a plant, paving the way for better food production and the development of new drugs.

The plant whose chemical blueprint has been mapped out is known as Arabidopsis. To gardeners, the plant is a common weed related to the mustard plant.

Aribdopsis joins the fruit fly, bacteria, and hundreds of other organisms to yield its genetic secrets to researchers. But scientists predict that this latest contribution will completely revolutionize the field of genetics.

Virtually everything humans need to survive can come from plants. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Principal Investigator Rob Martienssen notes that by the year 2050, it is estimated there will be 10 billion people in the world. "They will need food, fiber, and fuel, and they will look to plants as their primary source of this life-giving product," he says. "So, plant genomes are enormously important for the future of this planet. Important because the amount of land will not be going up. Despite the best efforts of plant breeders, crop plants fail to achieve 50-percent of their genetic potential."

That is where Arabidopsis comes in. Scientists say its 26,000 genes are a model for 250,000 plant species, including the world's most common food plants. In short order, researchers predict they will be able to manipulate plant genes to yield more and better crops that resist blight and pests.

The genetic modification of fruits and vegetables has been vigorously opposed by members of the public in some countries, particularly in Western Europe. But Rita Colwell, Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, says genetic manipulation of plants is nothing new. "Now we will be in a position to know very precisely what the selection and breeding that has been done classically looks like," she says. "By the kind of genetic manipulation that we can do to improve plant resistance to drought (for example).... We will be in a better position to know very precisely where those changes are, and to what extend they will have an effect on the physiology, growth of the plant and, thereby, be able to predict more precisely the effect on the environment, if there is any. So I see this opportunity to understand to see very precisely the genetics of plants, and to be able to use this knowledge in a wise and environmentally sound way as being one of the biggest benefits of the research."

The National Science Foundation helped sponsor the $70 million international project to decipher the genetic blueprint of Arabidopsis. Four papers describing the work are published in the journal "Nature."

Scientists working on the Arabidopsis project say there are a few more gaps that need to be filled in to complete the project by year's end. But there is enough genetic information provided as a result of their work to keep medical researchers busy for many years, according to Rob Martienssen of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. "From the basic biology point of view," he says, "plants actually have many of the same genes as people do. And some of discoveries made by the Arabidopsis Genome Project are remarkable in the number of human-disease genes that cause diseases in humans when mutated in humans that are present in Arabidopsis. The breast-cancer-one and breast-cancer-two genes are actually found in Arabidopsis. And there are many, many more."

These plant genes, then, could one day provide new models for researchers looking for new drugs to treat human disease.