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New, high-quality maize genome sequence will advance basic and applied research.

Information provided by the new maize genome sequence includes the locations on chromosomes of interesting, repeated sections of DNA (called centromeres) that are responsible for the faithful inheritance of those chromosomes by daughter cells during cell division.

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This new genome sequence represents a major breakthrough in genetics because it promises to advance basic research of maize and other grains, and help scientists and breeders improve maize crops, which are economically important and serve as globally important sources of food, fuel, and fiber. The resulting improved strains of maize may, for example, produce larger yields; show resistance to disease; offer efficiencies in nitrogen use that would enable farmers to reduce applications of costly, polluting fertilizers; and tolerate changes in rainfall or temperature accompanying climate change.

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The research team and its funding

The new maize sequence was produced by a consortium of researchers that was led by the Genome Sequencing Center (GSC) at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and included the University of Arizona, Iowa State University, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. This sequencing project was part of a joint Department of Energy/USDA/National Science Foundation (NSF) effort that was funded by NSF under the auspices of the National Plant Genome Initiative (NPGI).

The NPGI, which began in 1998, is an ongoing effort to understand the structure and function of all plant genes from the molecular and organism levels to interactions within ecosystems. The NPGI focuses on plants of economic importance and plant processes of potential economic value.

"Production of a high-quality maize genome sequence was a high priority for the NPGI from the beginning," said Jane Silverthorne of NSF. "This accomplishment builds on technological advances and basic research into maize biology that were essential to the design of the most cost-effective strategy to assemble and anchor the genes onto the genetic and physical maps."

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Real-world applications

Two other NPGI-funded studies were enabled by the new maize sequence. One produced a so-called HapMap of the maize genome, which describes the genetic differences between various strains of maize that arc currently bred around the world. This resource will help researchers identify the genes that control various maize traits.

The other NPGI-funded study builds on the new maize genome sequence by identifying a surprisingly widespread biological process that determines the level of expression of certain genes present in hybrid strains of maize.

"Sequencing the corn genome provides scientists with new information and tools to access the vast array of genes available to improve corn," said Kay Simmons of the USDA-ARS. "This new sequence information can be exploited to translate basic discoveries to the field for the benefit of corn growers, the corn industry, and consumers. It will pave the way for the development of maize breeding programs that will improve the quality and quantity of maize crops, and thereby benefit people throughout the world."

Because maize has served as a model plant for basic genetics research for the last 100 years, the completion of its genome sequence has important implications for basic research. In addition to advancing research on maize, the maize genome sequence is also expected to advance other cereal genome sequencing projects, such as those for wheat and barley.

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A daunting task

The maize sequencing project, which was initiated in 2005, is a notable achievement because it was completed quickly and because the maize genome is among the most challenging genomes sequenced to date. The complexity of the maize genome is partly due to its size: with 2.5 billion base pairs covering ten chromosomes, the maize genome is almost as big as the human genome and the largest plant genome sequenced to date.

The complexity of the maize genome is also partly due to the fact that about 85 percent of its DNA is composed of transposable elements--segments of DNA that can move between locations. "Transposable elements are found in all organisms, but were discovered in maize by Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock more than 60 years ago," said Rob Martienssen of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "It is a remarkable achievement to be able to visualize these elements in such detail in the genome sequence."

For more information, contact Lily Whiteman, National Science Foundation; lwhitema@nsf.gov, or Jennifer Martin, USDA; jmartin@nifa.usda.gov.
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Title Annotation:update
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:May 1, 2010
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