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Conference Committee Is Final Legislative Impediment for Plant Genome Initiative

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WASHINGTON--The controversial Plant Genome Initiative (PGI), which was included in Congress's proposed 1998 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF), still faces conference committee action when lawmakers reconvene this month. Although the 1998 federal budget was signed into law in August, NSF appropriations for 1998 and 1999 haven't been finalized. Thus the conference committee will determine the fate of the PGI, a multicrop plant sequencing initiative that was proposed, rather unconventionally, by policymakers on the Hill rather than by the scientific community.

According to Congressional staffers contacted by BioInform, the PGI continues to receive "high interest and support" from lawmakers.

BioInform also spoke with several plant geneticists currently involved in plant genome sequencing efforts, and found that although nearly all of them supported the PGI concept, opinions on proposed PGI research activities were mixed. Notably, Paul Bottino, one of the coprincipal investigators for the Genome Informatics Group sponsored by USDA's National Agricultural Library, said he was afraid there wouldn't be sufficient funding in the PGI to cover genomics research on all the crops. The issue would be further complicated by the fact that "different crop people are going to have different priorities" for their research, he added.

Bottino, who is also an associate professor in microbiology at the University of Maryland, didn't think corn should be the PGI's sole focus. Instead, he said, scientists should continue to focus on Arabidopsis research. As a higher plant species, Arabidopsis makes a good model for determining potential relationships between genes--specifically, mapping, he noted. Successful comparisons have already been made between Arabidopsis and corn, which Bottino believed would translate to corn and other cereals.

On the other hand, according to Ed Coe, who leads the Maize Genome Database project, the PGI would make it possible to work at a level of unparalleled functional genetics knowledge. He added that the PGI, or some extension of it, could allow scientists to link genes and their relationships to a plant's responses to signals from temperature, sunlight, and moisture. In addition to expanding the ability to genetically modify crop plants, this would potentially link specific cultivational practices to genetic information in a manner not possible before, Coe continued.

A geneticist working for the USDA and a professor of agronomy at the University of Missouri, Coe observed that the application-oriented potential of the PGI is the major factor distinguishing it from the Human Genome Project. "The development of information and tools, and their application to tailored modification of plants, of whole organisms," could represent a new paradigm, he commented. He also stressed that "the genetics of corn," which is the focus of the current version of the PGI, "applies to wheat, rice, and barley, since cereals are all grasses and there is a high degree of commonality among grasses." Because "higher plant information is transferable," he predicted that an expansion of the PGI might someday include soybeans, another important crop species.

Bottino agreed that as far as the PGI is concerned, "the power will now be in making comparisons between species." But he also worried that, with its focus on four crop species, the PGI could splinter the plant genetics field into factions. Bottino, who works on Arabidopsis, which is often called the plant equivalent of the fruitfly in the genetics field, has been involved over the last few years in directing the development of cross-platform access to the various plant genome databases that are part of the Plant Genome Database.

Nevertheless, both scientists were pleased that more attention is being paid to plant genetics. "There is a lot of thirst for support" among plant scientists, noted Coe, "so it's a delight to see plant science get more attention."

--Wendy Yee

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