The first of these projects is based at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and is led by Joachim Messing, director of Rutgers' Waksman Institute of Microbiology and a principal investigator on the Maize Genome Sequencing Project. The Rutgers initiative will involve a collaboration with researchers at the University of Arizona. The second project will be managed by investigators at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center in St. Louis, who will collaborate with The Institute for Genomic Research, Rockville, Md.
"This may be the most important genome research since the Human Genome Project, perhaps even more important in terms of societal implications and breaking new scientific ground," said Messing. "This research will generate information that enables scientists and farmers to make major improvements in one of the world's most significant crops and develop new approaches to genomic studies."
Maize dominates agriculture in the United States, where approximately 9 billion bushels of corn - double the yield of any other crop - are produced annually at a value of $30 billion. Over and above its value as a primary food crop, corn is increasingly being used in a wide range of applications. While more than half of the annual crop feeds domestic livestock, corn has become a common ingredient in manufactured products, including adhesives, batteries, cosmetics, fuel, pharmaceuticals, sweeteners and wallpaper.
The first complete plant genome to be sequenced was Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant in the mustard family with a relatively simple genetic structure. The maize genome is 20 times the size of Arabidopsis' but contains only twice the number of genes. Those genes are located on very large chromosomes, far larger than human chromosomes but much fewer in number. Thus, the search for order in this ocean of maize genetic material becomes exceedingly challenging, making the Maize Genome Project a formidable undertaking.
Current genome sequencing techniques include "shotgun sequencing," a method developed by Messing and his colleagues and employed in the Human Genome Project. In order to fully exploit the potential of shotgun sequencing for the Maize Genome Project, additional methodologies will be required.
"We need to come up with some new breakthroughs in methodology - how to do big genomes like corn, and how to do it best," said Messing. "Scientists see this as a new technical frontier. If they can do corn, they can do almost anything," he said.
The methods to be developed and tested by the Rutgers and Danforth groups are geared toward defining both the sequence of the genes and their physical location.
Agricultural breeders will find great value in the information produced since many of the traits for which they breed are controlled by a series of genes working together, Messing explained. Knowing where the various genes are and what they are doing should provide insight into how they might behave when strains are crossbred.
More precise information about the maize genome will also enable researchers to manipulate the plant's genes to create a more nutritious or viable corn without the controversial biotechnology used in genetically modified foods. Instead of inserting a gene that is not native to maize, scientists will be able to more effectively utilize the endogenous or native genes, Messing predicted.