November 15, 2005

Washington U. to Study Corn’s Genetic Code

ST. LOUIS -- Researchers at Washington University will lead a project to decipher the genetic code of corn, which they say should provide the knowledge leading to better corn yields.

Corn is the second crop plant to have its genome sequenced. A team of scientists from 10 countries recently completed a similar project with rice. That work was reported in August in the journal Nature.

Lead investigator Richard Wilson said rice was done first because it is a much simpler genome. The weed, arabidopsis, which grows quickly in the lab and has a small and simple genome, was sequenced first as practice for more complex plants, he said.

He compared genome sequences to the underlying code that drives computer software.

"It's what drives the machine," he said. "When you decode it, you understand the parts and how they work and what goes on when parts go bad."

Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center received a $29.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to decipher the genetic code of the most commonly used strain of corn, called B73.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which has its own genome center, will use a $2.5 million grant to work simultaneously on a less common strain of corn, Wilson said.

Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center, established in 1993, participated with other institutions around the world to decipher the genetic code of humans. That project ended in 2003.

The corn genome is estimated to have 50,000 to 60,000 genes, twice as many as the human genome.

Wilson said the research will help scientists better understand corn plants, and help breeders produce varieties with traits such as higher yield, improved nutritional content and better resistance to disease, pests and drought.

"It will result in better tasting food, better yields, and lower prices," he said. "To the man on the street, it'll mean cheaper, tastier taco chips."

Actual sequencing begins Dec. 1, with the first sequencing information to be made available to the public online starting in early 2006. Scientists estimate the project will take three years.


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