Carolina State University and Philip
Morris USA in late 2002 reached an agreement under which the tobacco
company will provide $17.6 million over 4½ years to fund a project
to map the genome of
The Tobacco Genome Initiative
will take advantage of a rapidly emerging expertise in genomic sciences,
said Dr. Steven Lommel, assistant vice chancellor for research. The
contract is the largest ever signed for a research effort in the College
and among the largest for the university.
This initiative marks
a milestone in N.C. States emergence as a national leader in genomic
research and opens a new chapter in our understanding of the tobacco
genome, said N.C. State Chancellor Marye Anne Fox. By placing
all new information from this study into the public domain, scientists,
farmers, businesses and students worldwide will benefit from N.C. States
N.C. State University
is particularly solid and good at looking at plant diseases and disease
control, said Lommel. This database will be valuable in
understanding plant disease in general and will be a Holy Grail for
plant disease research on campus and nationally. It will collectively
take plant disease research to the next level.
Tobacco is an important
model system. Its used to study other plants that may be more
difficult to work with, Opperman added. The data derived
from this project will be important to plant scientists working with
a number of other plants, studying how other species develop, yield,
resist pests and pathogens, and many other areas.
Lommel echoed Opperman,
saying, Tobacco is a beautiful plant model system. It is a keystone
refers to the family that includes not only tobacco, but crops such
as tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant a family of commodities important
to the economy of North Carolina.
What we learn in tobacco
will be important to all of them, said Lommel.
What is learned may also
lead to the development of alternative products from and uses for tobacco.
Tobacco presents very
important and interesting biosynthetic pathways, Lommel said.
The project is likely to
provide information that may lead to genetic engineering of tobacco
for alternative uses. Tobacco is thought to be a promising candidate
for molecular farming. It may be possible to change the genetic makeup
of tobacco plants, either by introducing foreign genes or by altering
the plants existing makeup, so that tobacco contains valuable
chemicals or drugs. The plants would then be harvested and processed
for these chemicals or drugs.
Lommel credited Dr. Johnny
Wynne, associate dean of the College and director of the N.C.
Agricultural Research Service, with having the vision to pursue
funding for the project one that Wynne believes is in the right
place at the right time.
Right now we have,
in my opinion, the best research program in flue-cured tobacco in the
world, said Wynne. This initiative will accelerate our current
genetics programs in tobacco, both the traditional and new alternatives
research programs, while this project will also provide data for our
bioinformatics group. The tobacco plant is a perfect model for data
that could be used in the bioinformatics area.
With completion of the project,
tobacco will be among a handful of plants whose genomes have been mapped.
The genomes of rice and a plant called Arabidopsis have been mapped,
and mapping the genome of corn is well under way, Lommel said. Arabidopsis
is a weed that is a member of the mustard family. It is often used as
a model plant.
We hope to sequence
over 90 percent of tobaccos genes, said Opperman. This
does not mean well know what all the genes do, although in some
cases we will be able to determine gene function.
Its not clear now
many genes a tobacco plant has, Opperman added, although it is thought
tobacco has between 25,000 and 50,000 genes.
The genome map hands
you the keys to do a whole range of experiments, Opperman said.
He added that knowing where a gene lies in the genome often provides
clues as to how the gene works and what it does.
And well probably
discover novel genes during the project, he said, adding that
the project may aid in understanding how plants and other organisms
Already, Lommel said, Other
faculty are lining up to use the data well be generating. The
results will flow out throughout the research. Value and discovery will
be occurring during the entire project.
From the academic perspective,
he said, This is a real boon to our graduate programs in genomics
and bioinformatics. These students will be working on these projects,
so it will be a great boon to the training and education of graduate
While the Tobacco Genome
Initiative will be headquartered in Oppermans laboratory, it will
take advantage of relatively new facilities in the College of Agriculture
and Life Sciences, such as the Genome
Research Laboratory, a 4,000-square-foot, $3 million lab on N.C.
States Centennial Campus
that makes available to college researchers the latest genomic technology.
Opperman added that Orion
Genomics, a St. Louis, Mo., company, will also play a key role in
the project. N.C. State has contracted with Orion for use of the companys
proprietary Gene Thresher technology, which identifies gene-rich regions
of a genome. Only about 1 percent of the tobacco genome is thought to
contain genes, so the technology will help narrow the search for genes.
The signing of the agreement
comes at the conclusion of a year-long pilot study.
We developed some of the tools well need for the project, said Opperman. We tried out sequencing strategies, developed some physical infrastructure and data analysis tools. The first year was basically a feasibility study. Could we scale up and do this? The answer was yes.