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Plant Genomics With Pfizer funding, Botanical Garden opens new lab facility

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The genomics scene in New York City got a boost recently. This month, the New York Botanical Garden, based in the Bronx, is opening its first new building in 50 years — the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory, a $23 million project that will house the institution’s budding genomics program.

The new building triples the botanical garden’s lab space, according to Dennis Stevenson, vice president for botanical science and one of the tenants of the facility. The plant research center is home to the institution’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics Studies as well as its genomics program. That includes the New York Plant Genomics Consortium, a collaboration between the botanical garden, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the American Museum of Natural History, and New York University.

The organization’s genomics work stemmed from earlier studies in phylogenetics, Stevenson says. After using more established molecular tools to build phylogenetic trees, he says, “the next step [was to] to use genomes to begin to try to understand what it was in terms of the genes that caused changes in those lineages.”

Amy Litt, director of plant genomics at the botanical garden, says most of the research there falls under the category of functional genomics. “We’re interested in using genomic techniques to try to identify the molecular basis of morphological or physiological differences between plants,” she says. Why, for instance, has one line of plants evolved to produce tomatoes while a line from the same ancestral plant is producing something completely different? Litt, who started out as a graduate student at the botanical garden, says she became intrigued early on by the idea of using molecular techniques to study “flower structure and fruit structure in non-model organisms.”

Litt’s projects utilize technologies including microarrays, ESTs, and SAGE. The 28,000-square-foot plant research center also houses a high-throughput DNA sequencer in addition to other robotics, and is the home base now for 60 or 70 people. Research will rely heavily on the botanical garden’s vast sample collections, including a herbarium of pressed dry plants that spans some 7 million species, live collections that represent another 5,000 or so species, and a newer frozen DNA collection.

The research center was named after Pfizer, a longtime botanical garden supporter and the largest private donor for the building. Other funding came from federal and state governments as well as from Lewis and Dorothy Cullman.

— Meredith Salisbury

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