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Moove Over, Human Genome: It's Ag Time

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The Plant and Animal Genome conference struck gold this year. In September, founder and chair Stephen Heller asked Sydney Brenner to give the keynote address. “You’re lucky the meeting is in San Diego,” Brenner wrote in an e-mail accepting the invite. Luckier than Heller knew: Two weeks later, Brenner won the Nobel Prize.

Brenner is sure to attract the spotlight to the agriculture community — “the ugly sister of the genomics operation,” says Heller. “Certainly having Sydney Brenner there makes a big difference,” says Max Rothschild, an Iowa State University swine researcher and a PAG coordinator. “It’s a big calling card. And having him as the kickoff speaker has got a lot people quite excited.”

But Brenner’s presence is just a boost for a conference already on the rise. Last year, 920 ag researchers pre-registered; this year, more than 1,200 had already signed up by the end of November, and PAG will likely top the 2,000 attendance mark for the first time in its 11-year run. About 1,800 made it last year, despite post-Sept. 11 air travel bugaboos.

The real draw is not the talks but the workshops. There are 68 of them jam-packed into the five-day meeting, covering topics such as cool-season legumes, root genomics, and poultry. Most of the workshops are half a day, but some last an entire day.

The meeting will also see two much anticipated announcements. Takuji Sasaki, director of the International Rice Genome Program, will present the completion of the public rice genome by a consortium of laboratories from 10 countries. And the undersecretary of agriculture will join the director of the NSF in unveiling the next five-year plan for the National Plant Genome Initiative.

For years the cotton, equine, and barley genome folks watched as the human effort got all the glory. Now it’s ag’s turn. While attendance at high-profile meetings such as TIGR’s GSAC is dwindling, PAG continues its slow but steady growth. “The whole human genome thing is plateau-ing out, or decreasing. The hype is over,” says Heller, a guest researcher at NIST. “The good news and the bad news is there was never any hype for agriculture.”

Unlike its somewhat glitzy human genome conference counterparts, PAG is decidedly no-frills. Each year it inhabits what co-chair Michael Gale, a wheat researcher at the John Innes Centre, refers to endearingly as “that wretched hotel” — San Diego’s shabby Town and Country. No harbor views here.

“I hate to say it, but it’s like going to McDonald’s,” says Heller. “You’re not getting anything spectacular, but you know what you’re getting.” The idea is to keep the meeting affordable: The conference rate for hotel rooms is just over $100 a night, and academic registration fees are $450 for five days, including meals.

While agricultural genomics may not be as exciting as human genomics, Heller says, “Dull and boring is finally taking over.”

 

PAG Highlights

Saturday, January 11

• Swine Workshop
9:00 am ¯ 5:30 pm

 

Sunday, January 12

• Forest Trees Workshop
9:00 am ¯ 6:00 pm,
7:30 pm ¯ 10:15 pm

 

Monday, January 13

• Sydney Brenner,
“The Way Ahead”
8:30 am ¯ 9:20 am

 

• The Next Five-Year Plan
(2003 ¯ 2008) for the National Plant Genome Initiative
11:50 am ¯ 12:10 pm

 

• Fruit and Nut Crops Workshop I
4:00 pm ¯ 6:15 pm

 

Tuesday, January 14

• Fruit and Nut Crops Workshop II
4:00 pm ¯ 6:15 pm

 

Wednesday, January 15

• Takuji Sasaki, director, International Rice Genome Program
8:30 am ¯ 9:20 am

 

• International Grass Genome Initiative Workshop
1:00 pm - 3:45 pm

 

• Banquet Dinner & Dancing
7:00 pm ¯ midnight

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