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Scientists develop method to find genetic basis for plant variation

ey might lead to the development of a new species, called speciation.

The mechanism of speciation, however, remains poorly understood. Salt said this approach could hopefully shed light on the process.

"By looking at natural variation, which we assume to be adaptive, we might be able to better understand why the organism evolved to be that way," Salt said. "This could be of value in many areas of biology."

Salt's findings were published earlier this month in the online journal PLoS Genetics.

Salt studies the composition of elements and ions, tiny charged particles, in plants. Called ionomics, the study of a plant's elemental composition is important for understanding their physiology, Salt said.

Since plants are immobile, they must make the most of their environment -- the water, sunlight and soil where they are -- to survive. Plants' ability to survive and thrive is tied to their ability to take up the right chemicals, usually in ionic form, from the soil.

Salt uses the database, known as the Purdue Ionomics Information Management System (PiiMS), to find "candidate genes," or genes that warrant further study. He combines this knowledge with results from DNA microarrays, small chips that can identify miniscule genetic differences between populations of a single species.

In the Arabidopsis study, Salt identified the gene, called AtHKT1, responsible for elevated sodium levels in two wild populations of the plant. The study began with a simple observation: Two populations of Arabidopsis from coastal regions of Spain and Japan had inexplicably high levels of sodium.

"So, the question became, 'Why?' But to get there, we had to first answer a series of simpler questions," Salt said.

The first question was how those plants differ from the "garden-variety" Arabidopsis. This is not a simple question, he said, which is why so few studies have been published concerning the precise g
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Contact: David Salt
dsalt@purdue.edu
765-496-2112
Purdue University
21-Dec-2006


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