Inside plants

Advances in plant species genomics research to improve the production of crops such as sugarcane are presented at FAPESP Week in Washington.

The first session of the second day of FAPESP Week, taking place this week in Washington, DC, gathered together Brazilian and US scientists to discuss advances in plant genomics research.

In a packed conference room, Marie-Anne van Sluys, Full Professor of the Botany Department at the Universidade de São Paulo, opened the session with the lecture entitled "Noise or Symphony: how to make sense of transposable elements," in which she discussed studies that she coordinated that confirm the role of transposable elements in plant genomics.

"Transposable elements are a type of repetitive DNA sequence which are, in turn, integral components of all genomes and have differing levels of amplification. The transposable elements are by far the most highly represented repetitive sequence in plant genomics and recent studies indicate that these elements may contribute to the structure of the regulatory networks,” she said.

Depending on the location of these sequences, these genes with no apparent biological function may result in the appearance of new species. Just like an orchestra that performs a musical piece, these gene sequences (also called selfish DNA) may fulfill the role of each instrument in the performance of various musical arrangements.

The scientist, member of the Coordinating team of the BIOEN-FAPESP Program, and her group have investigated the transposable elements in two types of plant models: solenaceae and sugarcane.

"Sugarcane genome sequences support the hypothesis that the transposable elements are responsible for the increase in the size of the genome, compared to sorghum, another plant that we studied,” she said.

Sluys emphasized that understanding the genomic variation of the sugarcane is essential for the selective cultivation of the plant, and also for understanding its evolutionary diversity. “We plan to develop tools that are capable of helping us distinguish the noise of events that are specific and fundamental for the specification of sugarcane,” she concluded.

Paulo Arruda, Professor at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas, spoke about genomic science and the founding of Alellyx Applied Genomics.

"Genomic Science was introduced in Brazil in 1997 when FAPESP launched the Genome Program that aimed at sequencing the genome of plant pathogenic bacteria for the first time. A network of 25 laboratories managed to sequence the complete genome of the Xylella fastidiosa and soon thereafter the network was expanded to sequence the other plant pathogens and unravel the transcriptome of sugarcane and eucalyptus," he said.

Xylella fastidiosa is a pathogenic agent that caused huge losses to citrus crops. By using Internet-based genetic sequences, the project, financed by the FAPESP-Genome Program, also corresponded to the introduction of bioinformatics in Brazil.

"The experience in genomic science created in the State of São Paulo attracted the attention of investors, and in 2002, a group of five scientists from the three state universities established the start-up called Allelyx, which is Xylella spelled backwards. Allelyx developed a platform for the discovery of genes focused on the increase in the biomass of sugarcane and eucalyptus, and the production of citrus plant that are resistant to bacterial diseases,” Arruda concluded.

Erich Grotewold, Professor at Ohio State University, presented the lecture entitled, "From Plant Systems Biology to Renewable Fuels," in which he described the work done in the laboratory he runs, which is focused on the discovery of metabolic routes and developments that may lead to the production of plant varieties with better yield for the production of biofuels.

He stated, "We combine new sequencing methods with proven and efficient approaches to identify the genes that regulate specific transcription factors, giving us tools that have proven to be very valuable for metabolic engineering.”

Grotewold’s group conducts research on herbaceous Arabidopsis thaliana from the family Brassicaceae, the same family that mustard belongs to. It is one of the model organisms for the study of genetics in botany. It was the first plant whose genome was completely sequenced.