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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Genomics in an Era of Transforming Technologies"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
USDA Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology
Sacramento, California

June 23, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good afternoon to all of you.

Thank you, Joe, for that kind introduction.

[slide: collage with plants]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I am delighted to be here for the Ministerial Conference and at the Exposition on Agricultural Science and Technology. It's an honor to be in the company of such distinguished individuals.

It is also encouraging to see so many Ministers gathered from nations across the globe to focus on the agricultural and food needs of developing countries. This international conference is both a testament to the urgency of hunger and to the shared commitment to promote a new sustainable agriculture.

It is of benefit to the entire world that many countries cross the threshold of productivity and sustainability. All nations have a responsibility to help. And we are here in Sacramento to be counted among those taking up this challenge.

Despite the complexity of this issue, many experts assert that science and technology can help bring food stability to regions that desperately need assistance.

Recently Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Laureate and "father" of the "Green Revolution", suggested that the world has the technology - either available or well advanced in the research pipeline - to feed a population of 10 billion people on a sustainable basis.

[slide: Kofi Annan quote]
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In his March 7 editorial in Science magazine, "A Challenge to the World's Scientists," Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan wrote:

"Ninety-five percent of the new science in the world is created in countries comprising only one-fifth of the world's population. [slide: continuation of Kofi Annan quote]...It will require the commitment of scientists and scientific institutions throughout the world to change that portrait to bring the benefits of science to all."

[slide: Title slide]
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Today I am especially pleased to talk about the significant role of science and technology to help us to meet this huge challenge.

I will focus on genomics because it has and will continue to play such a central role in our potential to feed the world.

[slide: fruit and vegetables]
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Genomics and its offspring, biotechnology, are transforming our future. We are all familiar with advances in plant genetics that allow us to engineer crops that are salt tolerant or drought resistant. Exciting research is well underway to develop foods that are nutritionally enhanced.

The increasing ability of science and technology to contribute to the well being of humanity resonates deeply for me both personally as a researcher, and as Director of the National Science Foundation. As you know, NSF supports all facets of science and engineering research and education.

Science and technology have always been a powerful force for human progress. They have helped us find ways through and beyond difficult circumstances. Agricultural advances in the 20th century prove the point.

[slide: corn]
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In the 1920s, we were able to increase our agricultural production with the breakthrough development of hybrid corn, a technology that remains to this day one of the most rapidly adopted in history.

Over 35 years ago, the Green Revolution dramatically enhanced our efforts to alleviate hunger.

[slide: global population]
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Vast populations in China, India, the Philippines, and Mexico were starving. The Green Revolution offered farmers new crop varieties that allowed them to improve their agricultural yields. The result was an increase in farm production, which brought increased food availability and lower food prices.

The Green Revolution ultimately brought India close to self-sufficiency and enabled that country to avert massive famine.

Prior to the Green Revolution, fifty percent of the population in developing countries went hungry; today that percentage has fallen to twenty percent. But we know even that number is too high, especially when we consider the developments in science and technology that provide opportunities for us to do much more.

We all know, however, that despite its success, the Green Revolution also had its shortcomings. Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and author of The Doubly Green Revolution, highlighted these shortcomings in a recent speech.

Conway reminded us that the revolution bypassed Africa altogether, in part because of Africa's greater diversity of crops and ecosystems.

Conway noted other problems, such as increased use of pesticides, which spawned pesticide resistant insects, while killing off some beneficial ones. Increased reliance on fertilizers, which omitted crop rotation, soil aeration, and working organic matter into the soil were other problems. We now know that crop rotation and soil aeration are more viable solutions to long-term sustainability.

Conway pointed out that we're now on the verge of a new revolution, the doubly "green." The doubly green refers to increased crop production in an environmentally sound manner. Indeed, that is the reason for our gathering here today.

[slide: Understanding plant genomics]
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In the last two decades, numerous developments in science and technology have made addressing agricultural productivity in a sustainable way far more likely. With emerging genomics research, science has an even greater opportunity to affect this change.

Plant Genomics is a tool that holds fantastic potential to contribute to the well-being of humanity and to the planet we call home.

[slide: Arabidopsis - NSF press release]
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We've learned a lot from our research in this realm. In December 2000, a meager mustard weed--a little plant called Arabidopsis made headlines, becoming the first-ever completely sequenced plant genome. This was the result of a joint effort by the United States, Japan, and the European Union.

Today, we call Arabidopsis the mapmaker for the plant kingdom, because we can use its genetic information to help decipher the genomics of 125,000 other plant species.

[slide: Arabidopsis DNA]
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Unraveling the genome of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, opened new territory. It opened our eyes to methods to improve the nutrition and health of the world's population and the sustainability of the environment.

Let me give you just a few examples.

[slide: Vitamin C pathway - orange & lettuce]
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A team of researchers at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute is using Arabidopsis to investigate the Vitamin C pathway in plants.

Unlike most animals, humans can't synthesize vitamin C, and some have an absolute dietary requirement for this nutrient. Once the specific genes in the vitamin C pathway are identified, Arabidopsis can be engineered for higher levels of production.

Increasing vitamin C in plants would result in higher intake per portion of fresh fruit or vegetables. And this could have an enormously positive impact on human health worldwide.

[slide: Rice plants]
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Just two years after sequencing Arabidopsis, scientists decoded the rice genome. Rice has been cultivated for more than 9,000 years. And it remains a major food staple for more than half the human population. While rice feeds half the world, its relatively simple genome helps scientists understand the genetics of other plants.

In December 2002, just a year later, the international research community celebrated the completion of a deep draft (99.99% complete) sequence of the rice genome by the international consortium of scientists, led by the Japanese rice genome project.

Rice was the first cereal crop to be sequenced, partly because it has the smallest genome of all cereals. Rice genes are similar to other cereal genes, thus the rice genome sequence serves as a scaffold and model for all other cereal crops.

Scientists from all disciplines have been mining the rice genome data daily to apply the information to studies in other cereals including maize, sorghum, barley and wheat.

[slide: Maize - collage of corn & plant research]
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Now I want to turn my attention to maize. Maize has also been cultivated for thousands of years - both as a vegetable and as a source of meal - and provided nutrition for major populations.

The maize genome is as large as the human or mouse genome, yet it is significantly more complex. As a consequence, conventional high throughput sequencing methods that were used successfully for human and mouse genomes are not applicable to maize.

Instead, novel methods are being tested to select for and sequence the gene-rich regions of the maize genome. The project is making rapid progress toward the goal of identifying the most efficient method to proceed with a large scale sequencing of the complete maize genome.

The collaborative team of investigators from five US institutions has already generated significant sequence data, and these data have been deposited in a publicly available database. Maize sequence data is being used to clarify the very unique architecture of the maize genome and to guide other research projects investigating all aspects of maize biology.

[slide: Potato blight fungus]
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The late blight disease in potatoes caused the Irish famine and still remains a major threat. A gene that provides resistance to all strains of this disease has now been identified in a species of wild potato.

A consortium of scientists supported by the National Science Foundation plant genome program has further isolated two large potato disease resistance hot spots on the potato genome, which they are currently sequencing.

The two regions include more than 30 resistance gene candidates and at least three active resistance genes, conferring resistance to viral, and oomycete pathogens, as well as genes for general resistance. These results may impact many plant pathogen research programs, which investigate the rapid genomic changes in these resistance genes in diverse crop plants.

As you see from these examples, our toolkit is diverse and growing. But the tools alone cannot solve the problem. Working together in collaborative teams establishing partnerships, as you are doing here today, will go a long way towards bringing the latest scientific knowledge to the developing world.

[slide: Cholera in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh]
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International cooperation will be imperative in addressing hunger and a host of other problems, particularly these problems that kill millions of people every year. My own research career has built strongly on international collaborative work with scientists in Bangladesh and focused on cholera.

At the National Science Foundation, we recognize the central role that international partnership plays in achieving research and development objectives. Traditionally, the National Science Foundation has worked with developing countries through its own programs and in the past, through partnerships with USAID.

[slide: earth slide]
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The need for international scientific cooperation and understanding is greater than it has ever been. Our common pursuit of new knowledge is a powerful tool for bringing people together toward the common goal of solving problems and building a world of peace and prosperity.

I believe we stand at the threshold of a new age of scientific exploration, one that will give us a deeper understanding of our planet and allow us to improve the quality of people's lives worldwide.

New knowledge drives technological innovation, and so provides us with a richer set of options for the future. (It also informs our choices, and through prediction, reduces our risks and enables prevention.)

If we are serious about making hunger and famine a thing of the past, we must use every tool we can develop. And the good news is that science and technology provide us with ever-growing opportunities for application of discoveries in the plant sciences.

I look forward to working with the conference participants on this global challenge to make the world a better place for all of us.



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