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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Arabidopsis thaliana Genome Sequence Completion
Press Conference
National Press Club

December 13, 2000

See also slide presentation.

Good afternoon. This is a wonderful occasion for all of science and humanity.

One hundred and thirty-seven years ago, Gregor Mendel set the world on a journey. In a garden at an Austrian monastery, he outlined the fundamental laws of genetics. These included his supposition on the 'factors' of heredity-that we now call genes. The simple garden pea was his vehicle for discovery. Since then the science of genetics has been revolutionized. Today-you and I-and the rest of world will see breakthroughs that were unimaginable in Mendel's time.

The National Science Foundation is pleased to be the lead agency of the Arabidopsis thaliana Genome Initiative. Along with USDA, DOE, NIH and other partners, the federal government has supported plant genome research directly since 1989.

The Arabidopsis sequencing project, which began in 1996, is a truly international effort. More than 2,000 researchers in over 30 countries have participated in this project, and teams in Japan and the European Union have been our principal collaborators. Our work has blossomed around this seemingly ordinary weed. Scientists have labored around the clock to complete the sequencing this year.

All nations and all peoples will benefit from the Arabidopsis sequence. These findings are freely accessible to researchers worldwide for the benefit of improving the nutrition, the general health, and the sustainability of the world's population and environment.

In sequencing a genome, we unveil a schematic of the plant's operating mechanisms on a molecular level-at the invisible scale of cellular activity. The DNA sequence reaches into the depths of the internal functioning of a plant's systems-like how it makes seed or how it uses sunlight.

Today's results mark the beginning of a revolution in our understanding of plants and in our quest to improve plants for the benefit of society. We can use the genetic information gleaned from Arabidopsis to help decipher the genomics of 250,000 other plant species. It's our model-much the way that study of the ordinary white mouse has unlocked many complex secrets of human health.

How will this knowledge yield practical results? The Earth's population is growing at an astonishing pace. Moreover, the majority of this growth is in regions that are the most inhospitable to conventional farming methods-and often the most environmentally sensitive as well. For this reason, we need new varieties of crops that are heartier, have higher yields with greater nutritional content, and are environmentally friendlier.

Creating plant varieties with desired characteristics is an age-old practice. This new genetic map will complement our traditional methods and position us for a quantum leap in plant science. What once took decades of careful breeding will soon take a few months.

Today, I am especially pleased to join my colleagues from other participating federal agencies. We welcome and thank: Eileen Kennedy from the Department of Agriculture, Pat Dehmer from the Department of Energy, Elke Jordan from the National Institutes of Health, and my colleague Mary Clutter from NSF. Also with us are the other key players on this team; the researchers representing dozens of colleagues around the world that have brought this effort to fruition.

I would like to close with a quote from Richard Flavell, the former Director of the John Innes Centre, one of our international sequencing partners;

"May all go the extra mile to tell the citizens of the world about the new phase of our quest to know how to use plants better for a healthier, happier planet."

We will now hear more about this major milestone in plant biology from Claire Fraser, President and Director of the Institute for Genomic Research.



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