Tiny plant a model for commercially important trees

Blacksburg, Va. -- A grant of $360,000 from the Department of Energy, Energy Biosciences Program, will fund a three-year project at Virginia Tech to understand the genes that are important in the formation of wood. Eric P. Beers, associate professor of horticulture in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, directs the project.

The project will use the herbaceous plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, as a model for the study. Beers' previous research was the first to demonstrate that Arabidopsis is a good model for studying the molecular biology of wood formation*. Arabidopsis is a small plant with a short life cycle; a great deal of information is available on it because its entire genome has been sequenced. This wealth of genomic information coupled with the variety of research techniques and other resources that have been developed for use with Arabidopsis make this small weed a powerful model. Despite its diminutive size, Arabidopsis produces wood that closely resembles that produced by commercially important trees species such as poplar and pine.

"The Arabidopsis genome contains about 25,000 genes. Figuring out which ones are required for a plant to produce wood is the challenge we face," Beers said.

Graduate student Chengsong Zhao measured the genes expressed in wood isolated from Arabidopsis using technology available at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech. The technology is capable of measuring expression of all 25,000 Arabidopsis genes simultaneously. With this information, Beers and his collaborator Allan W. Dickerman, research assistant professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, were able to reduce the number of possible wood formation genes from 25,000 possibilities down to less than 500.

"From among this relatively small number of possible wood-forming genes, we concentrate on the genes that code for transcription factors because they function as master regulator

Contact: Mary Ann Johnson
Virginia Tech

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