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Proposed Plant Genome Initiative Likely to Receive NSF Funding

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WASHINGTON--As of BioInform press time last week, Republican legislators were expressing the conviction that a budget plan that included the proposed Plant Genome Initiative (PGI) would be passed by the Republican-controlled Congress before the end of the week.

When members of the US House and Senate met in conference committee the week of July 21, they reconciled their stances on numerous budget issues, including whether the PGI would survive the harrowing budget consensus process. The initiative would focus on corn and possibly rice, and would represent US entry into a second massive sequencing effort, coordinating the sequencing of key crop plant genomes. As of BioInform press time, indications were positive for the inclusion of PGI funding in the conference bill and in the final budget plan, which was tentatively agreed upon by Congress and the White House last week.

Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.), chairman of the subcommittee responsible for funding the National Science Foundation (NSF), indicated via a spokesman that his committee had earmarked approximately $40 million for the PGI in NSF funding. This figure represents a four-fold increase over the initial $10 million that was first proposed for a corn genome sequencing project. Prior to the conference committee meeting, the status of the PGI had been cast into some doubt, since the House version of the budget bill didn't specify funding for the initiative. However, the conference bill now reportedly includes earmarked funding for the PGI, which would be distributed via NSF's competitive, merit-based award procedures.

Lobbyists Back Corn Genome Initiative

Interest in corn genome sequencing has been generated in part by the Corn Growers Association lobbying group, but plant geneticists have expressed concerns that corn's huge (2 million KB) genome and divergent genetic ancestry from other crops make it less scientifically attractive, despite the grain's status as an important cash crop. Re searchers previously suggested that the PGI also include rice, which is thought to represent a more reasonable genetic baseline for comparison to other crop species. Rice has a much smaller genome (430,000 KB) and is genetically more similar to wheat, barley, oats and corn.

In June a federal panel sided with the scientists' concerns and suggested in a report to National Science Advisor Jack Gibbons that the US also support sequencing the rice genome in collaboration with Japan and China, where rice genome research is already underway. The report also suggested that the initial sequencing efforts first focus on acquiring expressed sequence tags (EST's). The use of EST's, which are used to identify exons in genomic DNA, has been widespread in the human genome project and would help accelerate completion of plant genome sequencing projects.

The federal panel also suggested that shared databases and free distribution of plant clones be instituted as part of the sequencing initiative. Although there is a substantial amount of corn genetics research occurring in academia and in industry, there has been a lack of data sharing between the two factions. Many existing corn genome research data are not publicly available, since they have been supported by private funding. In the three companies that have corn genetics projects--Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto, and DuPont--information concerning plant bioinformatics collaborations has been limited. If they are granted a Congressional birthright, PGI organizers may also have to overcome the current reluctance of agricultural biotech organizations to share data.

According to sources, a number of NSF officials are cautious about the merit of the enormous undertaking the PGI would require. The foundation currently provides several million dollars a year in plant genetics research funding on Arabidopsis thalianas, corn, Nicotiana alata, plus many others, and some NSF administrators, including acting deputy director Joseph Bordogna, have publicly questioned the PGI's effectiveness in terms of resource allocation. Since the PGI was first suggested by a Senate panel and not by the NSF, its inclusion in the conference bill and ultimately in the budget plan is considered by some a Congressional directive to do research in an area that the NSF hadn't originally targeted.

--Wendy Yee

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