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WASHINGTON--The US Department of Agriculture introduced a draft Food Genome Initiative at a stakeholders' meeting here April 15 outlining, among other things, a five-year plan for how the department's budget for plant, animal, and microbial genomics will be allocated. Bioinformatics is one of eight priority areas to be targeted. Others are whole genome sequencing; functional genomics; technology development; cost-benefit analysis; physical and comparative mapping; germplasm; and gene discovery.

The plan accounts for a $23.5 million budget this year with budgets increasing annually to bring food genome spending up to $100 million by 2002. But if an agriculture spending bill making its way through Congress now is signed into law in the next few weeks, the department could have an additional $120 million a year to work with for the next five years.

The Agriculture Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act, introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Richard Lugar (R-IN) and passed unanimously in the Senate last October, includes language that mandates development of "improved bioinformatics to enhance both sequence or structure determination and analysis of the biological function of genes and gene products."

The bill would also establish animal and plant genome initiatives within the National Food Genome Strategy, address "obstacles limiting the development and implementation of gene-based approaches for animal improvement such as high-resolution genomic maps," and encourage international partnerships.

At BioInform press time the bill had been reported out of conference committee and was waiting to be presented on the Senate floor. But because controversial food stamp and crop insurance provisions have been attached and because the bill is competing for funds earmarked for the Department of Transportation budget, agriculture department staffers remain cautiously optimistic they will see the money.

"I'm saying take a wait-and-see attitude," said Judy St. John, associate deputy administrator on the national program staff at the Agricultural Research Service. But, St. John admitted, although the draft Food Genome Initiative doesn't account for that funding, "if the money were to be released we certainly have a plan in place by which we could spend it."

Betting on a bill

Chairing the Food Genome Initiative stakeholders' meeting, Eileen Kennedy, the Agriculture Department's deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics, was hopeful enough to bet on the bill's chances for passage during the stakeholders' meeting. "There are ideological snags, but I think it's going to squeak through," she said. "If it's not passed by May 15, I owe you a lunch," she told a stakeholder.

Kennedy told BioInform last week that she thought the bill was picking up momentum. If the funding does indeed come through, Kennedy said, "we would fast-forward some issues" that would not otherwise be addressed by the Food Genome Initiative plan for several years.

For example, the current blueprint would not allow the department to award grants for microbial genome sequencing until 2000, when $6 million is budgeted for competitive grants for rice and microbe whole-genome sequencing. Some stakeholders were critical of the lack of attention paid microbial genomics. Kennedy said a bigger pot of money would allow the department to address microbial research sooner.

Stakeholders also raised concerns about the prominence of bioinformatics in the draft. "We view bioinformatics as integral to all research. It shouldn't be separate, but should be a part of all projects," commented a scientist who works on corn genetics.

Kennedy agreed: "We have to have bioinformatics from square one," she told BioInform. "In order to have comparative genomics front and center, we have to have bioinformatics." But bioinformatics is small as far as the dollar investment for the initiative, she said.

Importance of partnerships

The importance of developing partnerships among other federal agencies, international agricultural genome groups, and industrial collaborators was another point raised by the draft initiative. "We want to reduce duplication of effort and partition the effort among species," said Sally Rocky, the department's deputy administrator for competitive grants.

"We need to emphasize the importance of close collaboration between the university sector, international groups, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation," St. John said. "It's critical that we have a leveraging of money in the federal, private, and public sector."

But how to foster such partnerships was another question raised by stakeholders. Mary Kay Thatcher of the Farm Bureau said the draft fell short of explaining how partnerships and collaborations would get done.

To be sure, if funding remains at current levels, collaborating will be necessary.

"What we're proposing to do in 1999 is limited by our funding," Kennedy said. As one stakeholder complained, "What can you do with $23 million?"

--Adrienne Burke

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