Since the late 1990s, members in the corn industry have been working to sequence the maize genome, which is ultimately the link that connects biotechnology and plant breeding. Understanding the complete genome allows seed companies to provide producers with a corn variety that can be resistant to drought and disease as well as enhance necessary traits for food, feed, fuel and industrial uses.
Early research relied on private research to map the genome independently. Now an industry partnership has been formed to allow the transfer of corn genome sequence data with others in the industry. Led by the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), Ceres, Inc. Monsanto Company, and DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. will combine their data with corn sequence data already in the public domain to accelerate the identification of genes within the entire corn genome.
The corn genome is almost as complex as the human genome, and nearly 10 times as difficult to map as the rice genome. Currently only about 10-20% of the raw complete sequence has been discovered. With data sharing, the partnership hopes to complete the full sequencing by 2007, rather than years later. Monsanto Director of Genomic Technology Tom Adams explains instead of wasting the efforts of what is done in the academic world and what was done in the industrial world, this partnership hopes to allow everyone to work together and combine efforts to boost momentum.
The data provided by the companies will be available to research scientists through a searchable database on the Web, and is intended to be hosted at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center, a not-for-profit research institute. To gain access to the data, scientists must complete a licensing agreement that will be downloadable on the NCGA Web site. Adam adds that the Web site will be available in a nonexclusive way to donors and those that are making the break through findings in the public sector. "We really don't want to limit the flow of this knowledge," he says.
Benefits for the grower
Bill Niebur, Pioneer vice president, research discovery, says the data is a driver to help genome efforts, "Ultimately what we all want is the ability to more fully understand where genes reside and align and link those up with those important traits that we want to change."
Gary Davis, chairman of NCGA research and development research, explains that as a corn producer the mapping of this genome provides ways to modify the corn plant, which is already the leading crop in the U.S. "It is important for me as a grower to be provided with new traits that will enhance its value and support me as a grower," he says.
Niebur explains some of the most significant traits sequencing can help address include disease resistance to gray leaf spot, stalk rot and ear molds.
Who will fund future research?
Public driven research is the cornerstone of creative science, Adams says. Niebur adds that for every dollar invested in agricultural research, it provides a 60% annual return and stimulates additional investments.
The cost of the complete sequencing may take as much as $30 to $100 million. Adams explains this is a broad number, and will become more clear in the next few months. New funding partnerships may evolve with organizations in the public sector.
The lower cost estimate probably only allows for the discovery. But the higher price tag would allow for the application of the knowledge drawn from the map. "The real value comes from applying it. That is where we see the return on the investment," Adams says.