Genetic science gaining momentum by silencing genes

Along with five European academic laboratories, researchers from the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) connected to Ghent University are accelerating the study of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

Taking advantage of the new RNAi technology, they are able to study the function of genes with the aid of specially designed fragments that turn off the corresponding genes. The scientists are building a collection of such fragments in Arabidopsis. Their ultimate goal is to contribute to the elucidation of the functions of all the genes in this model organism. Furthermore, this collection will also benefit research into other organisms, namely humans and animals.

Arabidopsis thaliana or the mouse-ear cress (a member of the mustard family) is a weed that is cultivated in numerous labs. Indeed, due to its genetic simplicity − it contains ‘only’ 29,000 genes − it is the most widely studied plant. The DNA sequence of Arabidopsis has been known for several years, and scientists worldwide are now concentrating on the search for the genes and the function of the proteins involved. Not only will this lead to new insights into the functioning of plant cells, which is important for agriculture and nutrition, but it will also shed light on the role of animal and human genes. More and more, scientists are discovering that biological processes in animals and humans are comparable to processes in plants.

At present, we know the function of only 5000 Arabidopsis genes − and scientists want to identify the function of the other 80% as quickly as possible. Until recently, they would have done this gene by gene, but research is rapidly evolving towards investigating multiple genes in parallel. Of course, new technologies are always needed to make these leaps, and RNAi is one such technology. This new technology makes it possible to prevent the production of a protein with a specifically designed fragment that turns off the coding gene. The removal of the protein then induces alterations in the plant during its development, and from these alterations researchers can deduce the function of the protein in question.

Pierre Hilson and his colleagues have made the use of RNAi for the study of Arabidopsis genes a lot easier. In the context of the AGRIKOLA European project, they are working on a collection of ‘inactivating’ fragments for all Arabidopsis genes. The current collection contains fragments designed to inactivate more than 20,000 different genes. This project will accelerate the study of the functions of the Arabidopsis genes − and thus of other living organisms. Scientists worldwide will soon be able to use the collection to study plant proteins in a highly targeted manner.

The initial results of the research from Pierre Hilson’s group are to appear on October 15th on the website of the authoritative journal Genome Research.

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