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MSU, UK, MIT to Run Plant Genomics Studies for Rx Uses

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Scientists at three universities will use $6 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct genomics research on plants that may have properties that could be used in developing new drugs, according to Michigan State University.

The stimulus funding Grand Opportunity grant from NIH, which was awarded to MSU, The University of Kentucky, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be used to understand how certain plants make medicinal compounds.

The studies will use transcriptomics to determine which genes of interest are being transcribed and expressed, metabolomics to assess the types and levels of several hundred chemicals within plant tissues, and bioinformatics to combine data sets about genes and to find which are most likely to be involved in the synthesis of certain compounds.

Over the course of the project, researchers at MSU will use high-throughput DNA sequencing to generate roughly 240 billion base pairs of information, or around the equivalent of 800 human genomes.

"Many plants make compounds that we use directly as medicines or that we modify slightly to create widely used medicines, but in almost all cases we do not understand how the plants synthesize these compounds," MSU Professor Dean DellaPenna said in a statement.

"Identifying and understanding the genes involved in the synthesis of these plant compounds is a first step that can lead to new drug development and increased production efficiency,” added DellaPenna, who is a principal investigator on the grants.

Dave Dewitt, associate dean for research at MSU’s College of Natural Science, said that “understanding the biosynthesis and exactly how plants are able to do this provides a powerful base of knowledge for improving medicine and health.

"Seeing the genome of a plant is like looking at a list of 30,000 parts without the instruction manual of how it all comes together to work," Dewitt said.

"DNA sequencing and metabolite analysis has become immensely more efficient to a point where we can make new discoveries using methods and approaches previously not easily employed in metabolic engineering,” he added.

Among the 14 plants the project will examine are Digitalis purpurea (foxglove), from which the heart drug digitoxin is derived; Atropa belladonna, which is used to produce Atropine; and Catharanthus roseus (periwinkle), which is used in two anti-cancer drugs.