Rice genome project gets boost with research breakthrough

by Stormy Wylie
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Earlier this year, U.S. researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle produced a working map of the rice genome. The breakthrough gives scientists the potential to dramatically improve the production of rice, which is a vital food source for half of the world's population.

Deciphering the genetic code of rice is expected to lead to the development of new varieties of rice that will not only produce greater yields, be more resistant to pests and disease, and grow in different climates and soils but that also could be engineered to include functional qualities to combat poor nutrition and human diseases.

Gregory G. Mahairas, director of the High Throughput Sequencing Center in the University of Washington's Department of Molecular Biotechnology, said the research would provide valuable knowledge that could ultimately be used to address food supply issues throughout the world.

The rice genome project was directed by Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, and managed by Dr. Mahairas. Work on the research project began more than three years ago and involved a staff of more than 200. The laboratory was equipped with 80 high-throughput DNA sequencers, robotic machines and powerful data processing computers.

"We've laid the scaffolding for the rice genome and identified most of the genes," Dr. Mahairas said. "This was the first major step toward opening up the next set of research."

The "working draft" status means the mapping is complete and can be understood in its totality. "There are still some missing pieces, like a word or two missing in paragraphs, but you can read and start to understand the entire book of life for rice," Dr. Mahairas said.

The research is expected to reduce by several years the schedule for creating a complete, detailed map of the rice genome.

Rice is the first plant to be mapped in a working draft form, Dr. Mahairas said, and is important because it is a model species for learning about traits such as yield, hybrid vigor and single and multigenic disease resistance of all grass plants, including wheat and corn.

Monsanto, a life sciences company based in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., financed the research project that also tested a method for rapidly sequencing large genomes. Monsanto said it would share the rice genome sequencing data with the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, a consortium established to sequence the entire genetic make-up of rice. Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is the lead agency of the I.R.G.S.P.

"Most of the sequence will allow researchers of the I.R.G.S.P. to proceed more rapidly to the functional genomics phase of this project — understanding what the genes really do," Dr. Mahairas said.

The consumer backlash against biotechnology should not affect further rice research, he added.

"As more clear benefits (of biotechnology) are outlined, there will be greater acceptance," Dr. Mahairas predicted.