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 with any plant or animal.
The $4 million grant begins Dec. 1 and will continue for four years. The project will create eight full-time jobs for technicians, graduate students, post-doctoral students and fellowships. An additional 10 positions will be created for undergraduate students enabling them to receive valuable research experience.
"MSU plant scientists have been in the vanguard in using Arabidopsis as the best-understood plant model," said George Leroi, dean of the MSU College of Natural Science. "Importantly, the project will provide opportunities for MSU undergraduates, graduate students and visiting researchers to become educated in modern genomic and bioinformatic techniques that will be widely applicable in the future."
This functional genomics research is a collaborative effort spanning several departments in the College of Natural Science, including the departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Plant Biology, Physics and the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab.
Last is the project's principal investigator. Co-investigators, all MSU faculty, are Christoph Benning, Dean DellaPenna, Ken Nadler, John Ohlrogge, Katherine Osteryoung, Yair Shachar-Hill, Andreas Weber, Bill Wedemeyer and Curt Wilkerson.