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UI researchers to take part in research on gene function in mustard plant

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
(217) 333-5802;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – University of Illinois researchers have major roles in a newly announced $43.8 million National Science Foundation-funded initiative to define the function of the genes in a plant considered a model for understanding all plants. Eventually, their findings could have dramatic implications for all agricultural crops.

Researchers from 43 institutions will focus on the individual roles of the 25,000 genes in Arabidopsis thaliana, a mustard plant for which scientists in an international effort recently published the complete genome sequence. Two of the 28 new grants under the NSF’s new 2010 Project will bring about $4.6 million to the UI campus.

Mary A. Schuler, a professor in the department of cell and structural biology, will lead a $3.46 million effort to define gene expression patterns of the cytochrome P450 monooxygenase gene family making up about 1 percent of the genome.

The NSF 2010 Genome Technology Center funded for this group will create microarrays for analysis of P450 RNA expression patterns in Arabidopsis tissues responding to environmental cues and chemical stresses. This work will be extended into the fields of functional genomics by generating protein complexes suitable for chemical profiling of each P450’s substrate preferences. The strategies will allow for a more complete understanding of a plant’s biochemical responses to stress conditions.

The center also will have an outreach program that includes Web-based courses in plant and animal biotechnology, and opportunities for high school teachers and students at both secondary and undergraduate levels to learn more about molecular biology, biotechnology and functional genomics.

Co-principal investigators on the grant – the second largest of the NSF initiative – are Lei Liu, director of bioinformatics, and Mark Band, director of functional genomics, both at the UI Biotechnology Center; and Stephen G. Sligar, a professor in the departments of biochemistry and of chemistry. Collaborators include Hans Bohnert, a new faculty member in the departments of plant biology and of crop sciences, and Daniele Werck-Reichhart of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Strasbourg, France.

Daniel R. Bush, a UI professor of plant biology and a scientist with the Photosynthesis Research Unit of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, will lead the
UI-based portion of a $3.2 million grant awarded through New York University to study nitrogen-regulated gene expression in Arabidopsis. His effort as a co-principal investigator, which encompasses about one-third of the grant, will focus on amino acid transporters in the plant’s vascular system.

The goal of this grant, which also will disperse funds to researchers at the University of California at San Diego, is to identify regulatory networks that control the expression of key genes associated with nitrogen assimilation and allocation. The various researchers work on different components of nitrogen biology in plants. One of their objectives is to create a publicly accessible Web database that details all of the gene functions related to nitrogen metabolism, which is vital to the growth of all plants.

According to the NSF announcement, Arabidopsis is a model to plants much like the mouse is for human research. The plant has far fewer non-coding, or junk, DNA than do most of the higher plants such as corn, wheat and soybeans.

In announcing the 2010 Project grants on Oct. 1, NSF Director Rita Colwell said: "While the task is daunting, it is also essential to this growing area of biotechnology research and its many applications. Only by understanding the fundamental processes of each gene can we piece together the puzzle of how DNA determines, for example, the rate of growth, resistance to disease and many other factors in plants."