Why Learn about Arabidopsis?
From the beginning, NSF saw the Arabidopsis effort as an opportunity to foster a collegial, highly motivated, scientific community that would advance fundamental knowledge in an effective way. Both within NSF and in other agencies, officials also recognized that the research has important practical applications. Despite the vast productivity of the agricultural sector, most crops grown in the United States produce less than 50 percent of their genetic potential. Plants succumb to disturbances in their environment; in some years, floods, drought, disease, and parasitic attacks cost billions of dollars. Unlike humans, plants cannot be moved to high ground or inoculated against illnesses. The only protection is to grow resistant strains, and many feel that conventional plant breeding cannot accomplish this fast enough. In the developing world in particular, the problem is exacerbated by growing populations that put extraordinary pressures on the ecosystem. Many see biotechnology as the only feasible solution.
Presciently summing up the major applications of biotechnology, a 1995 report from the National Science and Technology Council called Biotechnology for the 21st Century stated: "Through the use of advanced tools such as genetic engineering, biotechnology is expected to have a dramatic effect on the world economy over the next decade. Innovations emerging in the food and pharmaceutical sectors offer only a hint of the enormous potential of biotechnology to provide diverse new products, including disease-resistant plants, 'natural' pesticides, environmental remediation technologies, biodegradable plastics, novel therapeutic agents, and chemicals and enzymes that will reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of industrial processes
may well play as pivotal a role in social and industrial advancement over the next ten to twenty years as did physics and chemistry in the post-World War II period."