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Of maize and money
New funding for initial sequencing of the maize genome

Columbus noted in his diary after landing in the Americas in 1492 that "there was a great deal of tilled land sowed with a sort of…grain they call 'mahiz', which was well tasted baked and dried, and made into flower." Little did he probably know that maize was far more valuable than the gold and spices he hoped to find.

Corn has been cultivated for more than 7,000 years.

Since then, maize has become one of the world's major grain crops, ranking third behind wheat and rice, and it is the leading crop plant grown in the U.S. From animal fodder to starch, popcorn, corn oil, toothpaste, and latex paint—maize and maize-derived products have many different applications. As such, the sturdy plant is not only economically important but also a classical genetic model for plant research.

Maize research has received support from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, who recently awarded 10.2 million dollars to a two-year pilot study for the initial sequencing of the Zea mays genome.

The funding goes to two different approaches involved in the targeted sequencing of maize genes. One project will test two methods for isolating the gene-rich regions of the maize genome, while the other will sequence 20 million base pairs of the maize genome and assemble the sequence onto a detailed map.

Together, both projects will provide the research community with a powerful resource for maize genetics, biology and breeding, says Cathy A. Whitelaw, a researcher at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, who is involved in sequencing, assembling and annotating the maize genes.

Corn, or maize, is one of the world's three major grain crops.

"Since the maize genome is very large—about 2,500 million base pairs, which is similar to the size of the human genome—and complex, a whole genome project is out of the question," says Whitelaw. "I don't think there will ever be a 'complete' genome sequence for maize," she adds.

"The aim is to sequence the genes and obtain information on how the genome is organized by linkage to genetic and physical maps," says Whitelaw. A map of the maize genome, which includes information from genetic and physical maps, has been released earlier this year. The data from the new study are expected to increase the value of this currently low-resolution map.

The study involves two collaborative research teams: One is led by Karel Schubert and colleagues of the Donald Danforth Center for Plant Sciences in St. Louis, Missouri, and the other by Rutgers University in New Jersey. Researchers at the University of Arizona, France's Genoscope, Germany's Munich Information Center for Protein Sequences, TIGR, and others are collaborating on the two projects.

Current information about the Maize Genome Database Project is available at MaizeDB

See related GNN article
»Integrated map of the maize genome released

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NSF Funds $10.2m maize gene sequencing push. Press release, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia (September 20, 2002).

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