NSF awards UGA $4.1 million grant to study so-called 'jumping genes' in maize

Transposable elements, popularly called "jumping genes" when they were discovered more than half a century ago, are sequences of DNA that can move around chromosomes in a cell. At first thought to be molecular "junk," they are now recognized as important, even crucial parts of the blueprints of plants and animals.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant of $4.1 million to the University of Georgia to identify all the transposable elements (TE's) in maize and to generate an annotated database that will assist all future research in this crop plant crucial across the globe.

"The collective experiences of the team that will work on this puts us in a unique position," said Susan Wessler, Regents Professor of plant biology at UGA and principal investigator. "Maize is the organism of choice for understanding how TE's contribute to gene and genome evolution."

All information from the project, which is expected to take five years, will be made freely available to the Maize Genome Sequencing Project and to long-term repositories such as the Maize Genome Database.

"The scientific goals of this project and the familiarity of maize also provide outstanding opportunities for student training and for connections between the research community and the broader public," said Wessler. "This project will dedicate more than 15 percent of its resources to the development of web-based, traveling and local museum exhibits that describe the history of maize as a crop, as a model organism for research and as a key component for many Native American cultures."

To this end, collaborations have been established with the UGA Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Genomes differ dramatically in the percentage of TE's in their genomes. For instance, half of human DNA is transposable elements, while in some plants, the amount is more than 90 percent. About 80 percent of maize ge

Contact: Phil Williams
University of Georgia

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