CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have begun a new program that will outline key parts of the genetic structure of a wild grass species called Brachypodium – an important step in creating a new “model” that could change the face of plant biotechnology around the world.
This initiative -- part of a major gene-sequencing program just announced by the U.S. Department of Energy -- may open the door to revolutionary new discoveries for everything from improved ethanol production to advances with wheat, corn and the turf grass industry vital to Oregon’s economy.
Some early results on the work are expected within a year, scientists say.
Many of the most important advances in plant biotechnology use model plants that, for various reasons, lend themselves to genetic research – they grow quickly, have comparatively small and simple genomes and produce findings relevant to a wide range of other plants.
By far the most important plant model ever used, OSU experts say, is Arabidopsis – a small flowering plant in the mustard family that has been completely gene sequenced and has been critical to learning how plants function and what genes control various things like flowering or growth.
However, there are two major classes in the world of flowering plants - Monocotyledonae and Dicotyledonae, more commonly referred to as monocots and dicots. Arabidopsis is a dicot, along with most vegetable, tree and oil plants. What’s badly needed in biotechnology, researchers say, is a monocot model with a simple genome that’s easy to grow and study – and that’s where Brachypodium comes in.
“As a dicot, Arabidopsis has been by far the most important plant model we’ve ever used, nothing else is a close second,” said James Carrington, professor and director of the OSU Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing. “We believe that Brachypodium could become the Arabidopsis of the monocot world. For our goals in plant research, that would be extraordinarily important.”
Part of the excitement over the new effort, which just evolved and was planned in the last few months, is because the monocot class includes the world’s most important food crops – wheat, corn, oats, rice – as well as forage grasses for animal agriculture and turf grasses for lawns. Some of these grasses, especially switchgrass, are also looked at as the future of the ethanol industry, because they offer a net energy gain far more compelling than the crops now used to produce ethanol.
“We need plant models such as this to rapidly do genetic experiments and learn more about what genes are controlling various plant functions,” said Todd Mockler, an OSU assistant professor of botany and plant pathology. “This is what sets the stage for the advances that are possible with genetic engineering. With plants, these models are sort of the equivalent of a laboratory mouse for the study of animal biology or medicine.”
Scientists believe that Brachypodium distachyon, commonly known as purple false brome, is the perfect candidate to give them the monocot model they have needed for years. To accomplish that, two efforts are planned – one that will sequence its entire genome, and another that will create a list of “expressed sequence tags” that represent the critical, functional parts of the genome.
OSU experts will work on the second part of that project, along with experts from the Scripps Research Institute and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
“What’s promising about this project is the broad collaboration that it entails,” said Jeff Chang, an OSU assistant professor of botany and plant pathology. “It’s not just one or two groups, but people around the world bringing many different skills to focus on the same tasks. That’s why we can learn so much more in a fairly short time.”
OSU’s participation in this major national effort, Carrington said, is also a validation of the university’s recent commitment to its Computational and Genome Biology Initiative, which brought a number of new faculty to the university and focused their efforts on the growing relationship between biological research and advanced computer systems.
“This is clearly the type of project we envisioned when we were moving OSU more towards computational biology,” Carrington said. “This is where the advances of the future are going to come from, for things such as the Oregon wheat industry or our important grass seed industry.”
In other fields, biotechnology is seen as a key player in the nation’s energy future. The current research is part of the studies being done on switchgrass, which President Bush specifically cited as a potential bioenergy crop in his 2006 State of the Union address. And other projects in the new federal initiative include work on crops such as cassava, which is a food source for one billion people as well as a promising bioenergy crop.
More detail on the OSU Brachypodium research can be found on the web at www.brachypodium.org