Iowa State University scientists part of $29.5 million project to sequence the maize genome

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University is one of four institutions on the team selected for a $29.5 million, three-year project to sequence the maize or corn genome, the most complex genome to be sequenced to date.

Sequencing a genome reveals an organism's genetic blueprint and opens the door for researchers to discover the role each gene plays in the life of the organism. Completion of the corn genome will allow scientists to more efficiently develop corn varieties for specific conditions and uses.

One of the world's major crops, corn is important for food and feed, and increasingly valuable for energy production and as an industrial raw material.

Iowa State scientists will play a major role in the project -- assembling the DNA sequence data. Patrick Schnable, professor of agronomy and director of the Center for Plant Genomics, and Srinivas Aluru, professor of computer and electrical engineering, will lead Iowa State's effort.

The sequence data will be generated at the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. Other institutions on the team are the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy.

The bulk of the $29.5 million budget will go to Washington University for the sequencing, the project's most costly process. Iowa State will receive about $150,000.

"Being part of this significant federal project is national recognition that Iowa State is a major force in maize genomics. The investments the state, the university and industry have made in the Plant Sciences Institute are being acknowledged at the national level," Schnable said.

"Using the very detailed map of all corn genes that will be produced by this project, we can begin to truly understand how the genome controls corn growth and development," Schnable said.

This will allow scientists to more effectively develop corn with traits like enhanced nutrient composition for better food and feed, higher energy content for renewable fuel production, or improved characteristics for use in industrial raw materials. This will create new uses for corn and benefit both farmers and consumers.

Although the corn and human genomes are about the same size, the corn genome has about twice as many genes -- an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 genes compared to 26,000 in humans.

"Humans have genes that allow for the development of a nervous system and decision making. If we're hot, we move into the shade; if we're thirsty, we walk to a place where we can find a drink," Schnable said. "Plants must have a specific program, meaning genes, to deal with every environmental challenge that can arise. They're much more hard-wired for adjusting their physiology to deal with environmental change."

The corn genome is further complicated because as much as 80 percent consists of repetitive DNA that is largely devoid of genes, Schnable said.

"Without a doubt, the corn genome is the most difficult genome yet to be sequenced. It will be much harder than the human genome," Schnable said. "The research community has been preparing for this project for years. It represents a real technological hurdle, but one we are now well prepared to tackle."

In 1998, when Congress authorized NSF to establish a plant genome program, the scientific community recognized that it did not yet have the tools and resources to tackle the corn genome.

"NSF and plant scientists decided to first build the necessary tools and become more efficient at sequencing before we tackled something as hard as the corn genome," Schnable said.

"During the past several years, the maize genetics community has been developing tools and learning about corn genome structure so we could design a sequencing project that would succeed. Now we're able to do that," Schnable said.

"This is a very, very exciting project. It will forever change the way maize genetics research is conducted and greatly increase the benefits society receives from this research," he said. "In some ways, I feel like I've spent my entire professional life getting ready for this project."

NSF also has awarded Iowa State a separate $600,000 grant for equipment, with an additional $300,000 match from ISU's Laurence H. Baker Center for Bioinformatics and Biological Statistics, to purchase a supercomputer to use in the corn genome sequencing project and other projects in plant genomics and systems biology. In addition to Aluru and Schnable, this major research instrumentation grant is led by Robert Jernigan, director of the Laurence H. Baker Center for Bioinformatics and Biological Statistics, and Arun Somani, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering. The new computer will likely rank among the world's top 100 for speed and performance.

The corn variety selected for sequencing is B73. Developed at Iowa State, the cultivar remains the basis for many of the world's commercial lines of corn, and is used widely in corn genetics research.

The Center for Plant Genomics and the Laurence H. Baker Center for Bioinformatics and Biological Statistics are part of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University, which is dedicated to becoming one of the world's leading plant science research institutes. More than 200 faculty from the College of Agriculture, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Human Sciences and the College of Engineering conduct research in nine centers of the institute. They seek fundamental knowledge about plant systems to help feed the growing world population, strengthen human health and nutrition, improve crop quality and yield, foster environmental sustainability and expand the uses of plants for biobased products and bioenergy. The Plant Sciences Institute supports the training of students for exciting career opportunities and promotes new technologies to aid in the economic development of agriculture and industry throughout the state. The institute is supported through public and private funding.