The ever-growing collection of genome sequences is shedding light on the variation between individuals within a species. For example, in a forest of trees or a field of corn, there may be many versions of a particular gene, each with minor sequence differences. These sequence differences can sometimes have dramatic effects on growth and development.
Projects based at the University of California at Davis and Cornell University will catalog variants in pine trees and in maize, respectively, to allow researchers to link genetic variation with changes in gene function. This information could have applications in plant breeding.
More than half of the world's most cultivated crops have relatives that are invasive weeds, competing with the crop for nutrients and water and leading to reduced yields.
One example is red rice, a weedy form of rice that reduces the yields of cultivated rice by as much as 80 percent and contaminating harvests with its small red-coated grains. A project led by researchers at Washington University St. Louis will examine the regions of the red rice genome associated with weediness to find out whether it originated from the domesticated crop or if it was introduced as a weed from Asia.
A related project led by investigators at Michigan State University will investigate differences in gene expression in weedy and cultivated radishes to uncover which genes are associated with invasiveness.The outcomes of these projects could lead to a great understanding of how plants become weedy and invasive, and yield possible avenues for better selective control of weeds, scientists believe.
"The outcomes of this new program will tie together studies of the evolution of gene structure, function and regulation across the whole plant kingdom," said Collins.