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MSU researchers receive $4 million grant to uncover gene functions

A collaboration of Michigan State University researchers will use a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to uncover the functions of genes in a plant - research which may ultimately lead to improvements in human health and agriculture.

In a collaborative effort spanning several departments, MSU scientists will determine the functions of roughly 4,400 nuclear genes from the Arabidopsis plant. Arabidopsis is a flowering plant whose entire 29,000 gene sequence is known.

Scientists will focus on the genes which encode the chloroplast-targeted proteins that trigger photosynthesis. Understanding how these genes operate could yield significant breakthroughs in biotechnology and genomics worldwide, resulting in advances in human health and agriculture.

The chloroplast gives green plants their color and carries out photosynthesis and produces oxygen. It can be thought of as the world's life-support system. It is an attractive target for biotechnology because it produces many different molecules important to agriculture and human health, such as vegetable oils, starch for ethanol-based fuels, vitamin E and amino acids. Despite the many functions of a chloroplast, the MSU team estimates that it takes only around 4,000 genes to make a functional chloroplast, which is similar to a simple bacterium, rather than the tens of thousands of genes required to make a whole plant.

"If we completely understand the chloroplast, it should then be possible to engineer plants to be more productive harvesters of the sun's energy into biomass to decrease dependence on oil," said Robert Last, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and plant biology at MSU. "We also will be able to more efficiently make nutrients important to human health. These include vitamins and heart-healthy oils."

The NSF's Arabidopsis 2010 project is a worldwide effort to catalogue the function of every gene in the plant - something never before accomplished
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Source:Michigan State University


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