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Executive Summary In the committee's view of basic agricultural research as it is conducted within Agricultural Research Service (ARS) laboratories and within organizations throughout the country, three important features determine program planning direction. m ese are (1) the quickening pace of discovery, (2) the development of new molecular and cel- lular techniques that enhance current research practices, and (3) the necessity of interdisciplinary collaborations to determine and understand the basic processes of na- ture, particularly as they relate to efficient plant and animal productivity and health. In realizing how these and other factors will influ- ence the agricultural sciences in the United States for several decades, the ARS has seized the opportunity to reevaluate the structure and substance of its research programs. In the following summary of recommendations the National Research Council's Committee on Biosciences Research in Agriculture suggests ways to focus currently strong basic ARS research programs and identifies areas demanding new or expanded emphasis that will help the agency accomplish its goals. This review of newer molecular genetic techniques and traditional research methods is presented as a selected list of high-reward opportunities for agricultural research. It is not intended to be a blueprint for the structure of research direction specific to the Agri- cultural Research Service. Rather, the basic research approaches and goals outlined in this report can apply to the agricultural research community at all levels, both within and outside the publicly supported system. 1
Setting Priorities The committee recommends that the Agricultural Re- search Service use this report to assist in the identi- fication and selection of specific program objectives for long-term research. The committee acknowledges that it is neither practical nor possible for the ARS to achieve leadership status in all areas of research discussed in this report. ARS can achieve research leadership by selecting high-reward research opportunities that build upon current research strengths within ARS. In some instances the ARS should develop new initiatives such as the planned Plant Gene Expression Center. In this case the ARS is taking the opportunity to establish scientific leadership in a program that will not duplicate existing public and private research programs. Selection of program objectives will also depend upon the availability of scientific staff, technical and fi- nancial resources, and the need to respond to issues such as food quality, public health, and economic factors. Selection must also be based on an assessment of the areas of high-quality research that are being emphasized at other public and private research institutions. Additionally, program objectives based on newer molec- ular genetic techniques must compete scientifically for available ARS resources and should not be established at the expense of productive science based on conventional technologies. Program objectives must always be measured by the quality of the scientific investigation and its potential contribution. The committee further recommends that the ARS estab- lish a process for periodic outside review and evaluation of the scientific quality of long-term program objectives. Research in the Biosciences Genetic Eng ineer ing All of the disciplines comprising the agricultural sciences are influenced by genetics. The collection of genes that determines the properties of an organism can differ qualitatively from organism to organism. These differences have been demonstrated by classical genetic analysis and have been used to breed desirable qualities into agricultural crops and food animals. The newer mo- lecular techniques that are giving scientists the ability
3 to isolate, clone, and study genes provide a detailed and precise way of increasing the understanding of plant and animal genetics. The ARS should particularly focus molecular genetic research on important crop plants and food animals and on the maintenance and use of germ plasm collections. Further, the ARS should participate in the invention and development of additional molecular techniques. Food Animals Disease Increased research efforts, coupled with the use of newer techniques, will make safer, cheaper, and more effective vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutic products available within a few years. Necessary research that must be conducted in food animals includes study of the molecular genetics of the immune response; characterization of antigens of pathogens; development of the scientific base for subunit vaccine production; and isolation, characterization, and activity of immune modulators. Growth and Metabolism An understanding, generated from the use of newer techniques, of the molecular bases of key processes in food animals such as pregnancy, growth, lactation, and egg production will contribute greatly to improved metabolic efficiency and product quality. Studies are needed to identify, isolate, and characterize the endogenous chemical mediators of metabolism and their mechanisms of action at the organ, cellular, and intracellular levels. Further research should focus on the definition of relationships between feedstuffs, microbial fermentation, nutrient avail- ability, and uptake. Based on the knowledge gathered from these investigations, scientists must develop a means to manipulate the fundamental control systems in food animals, specifically in tissues such as muscle, adipose, and bone. Development and Reproduction The new biological methods offer special opportunities to understand animal reproduction, which in turn should result in enormous gains in productive efficiency. To improve the current understanding of reproduction and the modification of differentiation, research must emphasize in vitro manipulation of gametes and embryos, the addition of
4 genetic information to gametes and embryos, studies of the genome at the molecular level, and oogenesis and embryonic mortality. The ARS, specifically, should establish a food animal gene bank to assist the research community by coordinating and fostering the storage and maintenance of DNA libraries, gene transfer vectors, and probes. Crops Carbon and Nitrogen Input Improvement of the genetic and chemical understanding of the fundamental processes of carbon and nitrogen fixation in plants will provide the bases for new approaches to increase the productivity of crop plants. It is of utmost importance that molec- ular genetic studies of nitrogen fixation and carbon fixation be continued. Studies must emphasize the genetic determinants that control the partitioning of photosynthate between the harvested and nonharvested part of the plant. Specifically, research should focus on the development of plants with a superior ability to utilize nutrients via an improved carbon dioxide-fixing enzyme or by the incorporation of an efficient C4 system into C3 plants. Nitrogen fixation must be studied in both free-living prokaryotes and symbiotic systems with the goal of improving the process. The ability to fix nitro- gen might be incorporated directly into crop plants, or symbiotic relationships might be extended to nonlegumi- nous crops. Growth and Development Plant hormones and phytochrome affect almost all aspects of development, from seed germination to flowering. Increasing evidence points to these substances as major factors in gene expression. As the molecular understanding of gene expression in plants increases, so too will the opportunities for identifying the mechanisms of action that plant hormones and phyto- chrome use to regulate gene expression. Research should emphasize the role of the biosynthesis and degradation of plant hormones and phytochrome, and other regulatory sub- stances in major developmental stages, such as flowering, germination, and senescence, that influence crop yield. Physicochemical Stress Physicochemical stresses such as drought, cold, heat, salt, and toxic ions are the main factors limiting expansion of food, feed, and fiber pro-
5 auction. Further understanding of these factors is the basis for increased production potential. Research must emphasize the primary sites of damage to the plant caused by a specific stress factor, the mechanisms employed by stress-resistant plants to avoid and tolerate stress, and the genetic bases of these tolerance mechanisms. More specifically, studies should focus on the mechanisms of water and solute transport r especially into and within the roots; the role of excessive light as a destructive agent under stress conditions; and stress-related changes in membrane properties. Plant Diseases and Insect Pests Plant-Pathogen Interactions A molecular understanding of plant-pathogen interactions should lead to more effec- tive, environmentally compatible, and less costly disease control technologies. The molecular bases, including the genetics, of factors that determine resistance or suscep- tibility in host-pathogen interactions must be defined. me basic steps in the development of disease symptoms caused by the invading pathogen must be elucidated. Re- searchers must attempt to transfer resistance traits to susceptible crop plants or seek ways to cause resistance genes to be expressed. Biological Control The use of microbes currently is only a small aspect of control of competing biological systems. The impetus of the new biology presents oppor- tunities to significantly increase microbial control of plant pathogens and insect pests and to detoxify pesti- cide residues. Studies must be designed to identify and explore microbial agents that can control plant diseases and insect pests and to improve their effectiveness by conventional and newer genetic techniques. Scientists must expand knowledge of the basic biology of nematodes to further identify ways to perturb their reproduction and development. Hey must increase the understanding of microorganisms that promote plant health. New research must also emphasize the selection or engineering of microbes to detoxify organic pesticide residues. Insect Neurobiology The potential adverse effects of insecticides on the environment and on human and animal health, in addition to increasing resistance in pests, call for development of alternatives to current insect
6 pest control. me insect neural system has been identi- fied as a fundamental site for manipulations that should provide new opportunities for control. A great need exists for establishment of the first multidisciplinary program in insect neurobiology. Research must focus on the molecular biological understanding of the synthesis, regulation, and activity of pheromones, neuropeptides, ecdysteroids, and juvenile hormones and of their inter- actions in insect growth, development, and reproduction , Pesticides A clear understanding of the molecular basis of pesticide action will provide opportunities to develop the next generation of pesticides to decrease crop losses during production and storage. This could be achieved by means that supplement the traditional syn- thesis and screening methods. Using interdisciplinary techniques, scientists must identify the sites of action of pesticides, including those of metabolic activation and detoxification. Further research must be directed toward the isolation and characterization of new natural chemicals useful as pesticides. Optimal Climate for Basic Research A clear definition of major research areas and long- term goals is important to the quality of research within the ARS. Equally important, committee members believe, is the definition and provision of conditions that foster high-quality research. The following points summarize steps that the ARS should take to create the optimal climate for productive research. Periodic Outside Review An outside advisory council of 5 to 10 leading scientists should be created to provide regular program review and to suggest new directions in research for the agency. Subcouncils should be formed to meet more specific needs. Leadership Additional capable scientific leaders are needed as laboratory chiefs within the ARS. They should be selected primarily on a basis of scientific excellence and secondarily on a basis of management potential. The National Program Staff too must provide strong support and leadership for creative research within a flexible framework. Open exchanges must be encouraged between the National Program Staff and laboratory scientists. To
7 accomplish this the National Program Staff not only must encourage open and frequent communications with ARS scientists but also must be receptive to the new ideas and new research directions emerging from scientists in the laboratory. ARS Centers The committee supports the agency's plan for the new Plant Gene Expression Center and its focus on basic research on plant molecular genetics. The commit- tee recommends, because of duplication of scientific efforts at a number of the 147 ARS centers, that the number of sites be reduced, creating an effective crit- ical mass of researchers at the fewer sites. m e advi- sory council, through input from its subcouncils, could make specific recommendations on consolidation and regrouping of research programs and sites. Staff and Activities The committee recommends that the ARS expand its relatively new postdoctoral program, with the goal being to establish a steady state of 750 non- tenured staff members. Nontenured staff would include postdoctoral fellows and senior staff fellows positioned within the most productive basic research programs of the ARS. The influx of postdoctoral researchers will foster a vigorous exchange of ideas and facilitate further interdisciplinary activities that are essential to the effectiveness of research using new biology techniques. The committee also recommends that the ARS employ outside appraisals in the review of all candidates for tenure. Review for tenured positions should occur five years after initial hiring for Ph.D.-level basic research scientists rather than one year after employment as is current practice. Budget Flexibility Allocations for salaries should not exceed 75 percent of the total budget of any ARS center. Where purchase of expensive materials is particularly critical to the maintenance of high-quality research, funds designated for salaries might be as low as 60 per- cent of the total budget. The ARS should designate ap- proximately 10 percent of the total budget of centers as flexible funds to support meeting attendance, research- related travel, and new exploratory opportunities. The attendance at national and international meetings by ARS scientists is critical and should receive a higher priority. me ARS should also encourage its scientists to take sabbaticals to develop new skills.
8 Outside Relationships me ARS is encouraged to estab- lish additional relationships with strong university groups. Such liaisons will have the effect of raising the numbers of scientists in some of the smaller ARS laboratories to the critical mass required for produc- tive, quality research. The ARS must also begin to explore research relationships with industry. These may include seminars, laboratory visits, and cooperative research. me ARS should reevaluate its relationship with the general public and intensify consumer education about the importance of agriculture to the health of the nation's economy and its people.