Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Arabidopsis thaliana Genome Sequence Completion
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,
We will now hear more about this major milestone in
plant biology from Claire Fraser, President and Director
of the Institute for Genomic Research.