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MAIZE Project - News Release

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Writer: Philip Lee Williams, 706/542-8501,
Contact: Susan Wessler, 706/542-1870,

National Science Foundation awards UGA $4.1 million grant to study so-called “jumping genes” in maize

Athens, Ga. – Transposable elements, popularly called “jumping genes” when they were discovered more than half a century ago, are sequences of DNA that can move around chromosomes in a cell. At first thought to be molecular “junk,” they are now recognized as important, even crucial parts of the blueprints of plants and animals.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant of $4.1 million to the University of Georgia to identify all the transposable elements (TE’s) in maize and to generate an annotated database that will assist all future research in this crop plant crucial across the globe.

“The collective experiences of the team that will work on this puts us in a unique position,” said Susan Wessler, Regents Professor of plant biology at UGA and principal investigator. “Maize is the organism of choice for understanding how TE’s contribute to gene and genome evolution.”

Other principal investigators for the newly funded grant include, from UGA: Jeffrey Bennetzen, department of genetics and Kelly Dawe, departments of plant biology and genetics. Participating from the UGA Museum of Natural History is Byron Freeman. Other co-principal investigators include Nin Jiang of Michigan State University and Phillip SanMiguel of Purdue University.

All information from the project, which is expected to take five years, will be made freely available to the Maize Genome Sequencing Project and to long-term repositories such as the Maize Genome Database.

“The scientific goals of this project and the familiarity of maize also provide outstanding opportunities for student training and for connections between the research community and the broader public,” said Wessler. “This project will dedicate more than 15 percent of its resources to the development of web-based, traveling and local museum exhibits that describe the history of maize as a crop, as a model organism for research and as a key component for many Native American cultures.”

To this end, collaborations have been established with the UGA Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Genomes differ dramatically in the percentage of TE’s in their genomes. For instance, half of human DNA is transposable elements, while in some plants, the amount is more than 90 percent. About 80 percent of maize genomic DNA is derived from TE’s.

The project also has an in-lab minority outreach component. Each participating institution has a commitment to the education of undergraduates, high school students and other members of the broader community, especially in the representation of under-represented groups.

Scientist Barbara McClintock discovered the first TE’s in maize in 1948, work that led to her winning the Nobel Prize in 1983.