Learn the secret life of plants

A £13.5m facility will open new avenues of research by enabling the sequencing of plant DNA. Lee Bunce writes

July 2, 2009

Scientists may have sequenced the human genome, and more recently that of the Hereford cow, but what about the genome for the bumblebee or even the humble potato?

A new £13.5 million national facility to enable researchers to sequence the full DNA of socially and economically important animals, plants and microbes opens this week in Norwich, promising researchers a cutting-edge tool to aid their work.

The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) is only the second dedicated genome-sequencing facility for UK researchers. The first, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, has focused primarily on medical research, whereas the new centre will concentrate on providing for the needs of other biologists.

UK scientists studying the genomes of plants, microbes and animals have been hampered by a lack of facilities, but this week's launch promises to usher in a new era in genomics, expanding the scope of genome sequencing in virgin areas of non-human research.

"The UK is a world leader in genomics, which is essential to understanding how to tackle the challenges we face in food security, the development of eco-friendly fuels and fighting superbugs," Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, said about TGAC's opening.

Microbes, animals and others

The facility, on the grounds of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's John Innes Centre, is supported by the research council in collaboration with various regional funding bodies.

The centre's director is Jane Rogers, who has moved from the Sanger Institute.

"It has been proven that genome sequencing is incredibly valuable in understanding the human genome and genomes of other vertebrates," she explained. "What we want to do is be able to sequence plant, microbe and other animal genomes to stimulate these areas of biology."

A genome is the set of all the DNA that makes up an organism's genetic material. Genome sequencing involves ascertaining the order in which nucleotides, or bases, occur. The order determines how the genetic material produces the organism.

Although the study of genome sequences is a relatively recent development, it is already an important focus of research.

It took 13 years for the international collaboration sequencing the human genome to achieve its goal. But developments in the technology used to perform the task mean that whole genomes can now be scanned in less than two weeks.

The power of genomics to change the way biology is done and the technological advances bringing down the costs of sequencing make the centre's opening timely and relevant, Dr Rogers said.

The centre, which will also be a leader in bioinformatics - the collection and analysis of large amounts of complex biological data - will build up to full capacity later this year. Details of how researchers will gain access to the facility are still being finalised.

Tools to adapt

Although specifics of the projects that will be undertaken at TGAC are still to be decided by an independent advisory board, the areas it could explore include the creation of eco-friendly biofuels, new ways to protect livestock from exotic diseases and the development of hardier and more nutritious fruit and vegetables.

"There is a new and increasing need to understand the growth of plants and how they adapt to different environments," Dr Rogers said. "We believe genomics can give us the tools to be able to do this."

Mike Bevan, head of cell and development biology at the John Innes Centre, is one researcher who hopes to benefit from TGAC.

He expects it to have a huge impact on the research he is able to do in his area, crop genomics.

"TGAC will open at least as many new avenues in plant research as it has done in human and medical research," he said. "Within crop genomics, we just haven't had access to any of this technology."

Research into plants is expected to address growing problems, such as the threat to crop productivity posed by diminishing water resources and the challenge to food security presented by an expanding global population.

"It is an amazing set of challenges. What we have to do in plant science is as important for humans as medical research. The next-generation sequencing that TGAC offers will provide a way to do this," Professor Bevan said.

The centre's launch comes as the BBSRC begins a consultation on genome-sequencing technology in an effort to pinpoint the areas where it can make an impact. Researchers are invited to submit their ideas to the research council by 9 August.

For more information, visit www.bbsrc.ac.uk.

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