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How quickly this transformation of crop production and animal husbandry takes place will depend in large part on how much effort—and what type of effort—is put into basic research on the genetics of crops and livestock. Although plenty of research has already been done, among dozens of different species there has been no overall plan or coordination. Not surprisingly, then, progress toward genetically improved crops and livestock has been slower than many would hope. The gene for resistance to nematodes, for example, took eight years to discover. It was found only because of a lucky recombination of chromosomes when domestic sugar beets were cross-bred with wild beets that have a natural nematode resistance. Even now, although we know that wild beets have a nematode resistance gene we have no idea where it is located in the genome or how to isolate it.
Last fall, three government agencies took an important first step toward a more focused agricultural research effort. The National Science Foundation and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy established a program to track down the entire genetic code, including an estimated 20,000 genes, of Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard family. Although Arabidopsis itself has no commercial value—it is a weed—delineating its entire genome will give researchers working on other plants an important foundation for their own studies. It was chosen because working from what is known about the genes of Arabidopsis, they will be able to answer genetic questions about other species, such as the location of a particular gene, much more quickly.
Now members of the agricultural research community believe it is time to start a broader project: an agricultural genome program. Building from the base provided by the Arabidopsis effort and using expertise and technology developed in other ventures, such as the Human Genome Project, it should be possible to generate a huge—and hugely valuable—amount of information on the genetics of agricultural species in a relatively short time.
With that in mind, the National Research Council (NRC) held a workshop on April 26, "Designing an Agricultural Genome Program." Catherine Woteki, Acting Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics at the Department of Agriculture, summarized the purpose of the workshop this way: "We in the scientific community need to provide our best estimates of the scientific gain to be made from these investments [in agricultural genome studies]. Over the last decade we have been making a very major investment in genomic activities of importance to agriculture. We have taken the approach of not setting priorities among the major commodities of interest to agriculture. We have a decade's worth of experience with that approach."
But now, she noted, the Department of Agriculture has taken a different tack by joining with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy to fund the Arabidopsis program. "Having made that decision, let's take the time to go back and examine what we have learned scientifically from the 40 or 50 different species that we have invested in over this past decade in genome-mapping related activities. Can that help us to define a more focused agenda for