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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Scientists plan a virtual plant
Arabidopsis, a member of the mustard family of plants
Arabidopsis, a member of the mustard family of plants
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

A group of scientists a driving forward with an project that they hope will eventually allow them to construct a "virtual" plant.

Called the 2010 Project, it will determine the function of all the genes and their associated proteins in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress or mouse-eared cress).

So far, scientists have managed to sequence all the DNA - the plant's "life code" - on two of the five chromosomes found in the cells of Arabidopsis. The genes, the templates for making the proteins, are written in the DNA.

"The goal of the 2010 Project is to understand all the genes of Arabidopsis. This is the only way we are going to understand what makes a plant a plant," said Joanne Chory of the Salk Institute in the US.

'Clickable' plant

"As with the Human Genome Project, knowing the gene sequence is just a start. Understanding what the genes are doing is the real challenge that we're all facing." The full DNA sequence of Arabidopsis should be available later this year.

Arabidopsis is a member of the mustard family that also includes cabbage and radish. It is to plant genetics what the laboratory mouse is to animal genetics.

Like the mouse, Arabidopsis is small, prolific, easily grown and has a rapid lifecycle. Arabidopsis has the smallest known genome of any flowering plant.

The effort is called Project 2010 because by 2010 plant researchers hope to construct a complete "wiring diagram" of all the biological pathways of Arabidopsis.

Dr Chory said: "Ultimately, we hope to create a 'clickable plant'. We want to be able to go to our computers and click on a cell type and understand all the protein-protein interactions.

Big challenges

"We'd love, for instance, to see a four-dimensional view of a plant that covers all the details from when the seed germinates to when the next generation seeds fall off the mother plant.

And we'd like to be able to stop the process at any phase in the plant's lifecycle and see which proteins are expressed and how they interact."

Chory noted, however, that the goal of building such a virtual plant would require major scientific advances in understanding Arabidopsis.

"The functions of almost half of the plant's proteins are still unknown," she said. "So, we've got an extremely ambitious goal to fully understand their function.

"Most of the genes in Arabidopsis are found in every other plant," she said. "So any discovery in Arabidopsis is very easy to apply to any other plants, such as crop plants or medicinal plants.

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