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(Last updated 10/25/04)


COLUMBUS, Ohio – The National Science Foundation has awarded researchers from Ohio State and California State universities $2 million to study how genes talk to each other during plant growth and development.

During the three-year project, which began September 1, the scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how a handful of specific proteins, called transcription factors, influence the genes that control two basic plant processes – flowering and epidermal functioning ("epidermal functioning" refers to the hairs, pores and pigments in leaf surfaces.)

Transcription factors create regulatory networks that essentially tell certain genes what to do, and when to do it.

Arabidopsis thaliana (L.) Heynh. mouseear cress

Photo:William S. Justice @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

The purpose of the grant is two-fold: In the laboratory, the researchers will identify the genes directly controlled by 31 transcription factors known to regulate flowering and epidermal functions in Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant whose entire genome has been sequenced. They will compare these laboratory results to the results generated by computer programs meant to predict which transcription factors control which genes.

Scientists already know that plants have roughly 2,000 transcription factors. Understanding how these factors regulate genes could have a considerable impact on the future of agriculture, said Rebecca Lamb, a co-investigator on the grant and an assistant professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State.

"What we learn by studying Arabidopsis right now may one day be applicable to crop plants, such as improving their nutritive value and perhaps even reducing the use of pesticides," she said.

Rebecca Lamb
Erich Grotewold

If the computational results match what Lamb and her colleagues learn from their laboratory work – that is, if the computer program makes accurate predictions about how transcription factors and genes interact – they should be able to decipher the purpose of the other already-known plant transcription factors.

"The transcription factors we're studying in the laboratory are only a small subset of the factors we know about," said Erich Grotewold, the grant's principal investigator and an associate professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State.

"It could take decades of laboratory work to analyze all 2,000-some known transcription factors," he continued. "Having the right computational tools that can predict the networks in which the transcription factors we're not studying in the lab participate in would save a lot of time."

The data generated by the grant will be publicly available through the Arabidopsis Gene Regulatory Information Server (AGRIS), a transcription factor database in development by the researchers. AGRIS is online at http://arabidopsis.med.ohio-state.edu/.

Lamb and Grotewold are working with co-investigators Ramana Davuluri, a bioinformatics expert and an assistant professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics, and Betsy Read, an associate professor of biological sciences at California State University, San Marcos.


Contact: Erich Grotewold, (614) 292-2483; grotewold.1@osu.edu
Rebecca Lamb, (614) 688-4322; lamb.129@osu.edu

Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; wagner.235@osu.edu