Plant Scientists Rush Ahead

Plant researchers are an impatient lot. They are about to complete the first genetic sequence of a flowering plant, a wild mustard called Arabidopsis thaliana. But even before the last A's, C's, G's, and T's are deposited in GenBank, a group of plant scientists has hatched an ambitious plan for the next phase: figuring out the function of all 25,000 genes.

The 130-million-base-pair Arabidopsis genome is expected to be fully sequenced in July and published by year's end, 3 years ahead of schedule. Already, information gleaned from decoding this simple plant--the equivalent of the lab mouse--has made "a quantitative change" in research, says Carnegie Institution plant scientist Chris Somerville, whittling the time for isolating genes from years to weeks and thus speeding genetic discoveries ranging from more healthful soybean oil to a protein that may lead to faster growing crops.

Not content to rest on their laurels, Arabidopsis experts now want to determine what proteins are expressed by every single gene, each protein's job within the cell, and their biochemistry--a task that could take 10 years and cost $500 million. The 2010 Project, as it's called, was fleshed out at a January workshop at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California; it was recently released on the Web and is also summarized in this month's issue of Plant Physiology. Proponents say the multinational project will shed light on a host of questions--from how gene expression in any species is influenced by environment to the minimum number of genes needed to make a plant.

The group's ultimate goal is to create a "virtual plant" on the Internet, where scientists can click on an Arabidopsis cell at any stage of development, from seed to seed-dropping adult, and see every protein being expressed and the connections between them. However, plan co-author Joe Ecker of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia cautions that the 2010 Project will take them only partway there; for now, they will settle for knowing what all the individual proteins do.

That alone is an enormous job. The 2010 Project will first support "genome technology centers" that will supply the necessary tools, such as DNA chips for studying gene expression, libraries of cloned genes, and knockout strains. The project is likely to draw on the talents of labs already gearing up to do high-throughput functional genomics of the nematode C. elegans, fruit fly, and human. Firmly behind the proposal, the National Science Foundation has asked for $25 million for the 2010 Project for fiscal year 2001, an amount that Ecker hopes will grow or be supplemented by other agencies.