Closing the Technology Gap


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Prof. Robert Fluhr. Removing the bottleneck to transgenic crops

Virus-resistant barley, herbicide-tolerant rice and slow-to-ripen tomatoes -- these upgraded staples are among the now familiar products of the age of genetic engineering. The march of new transgenic foods to the supermarket shelves depends on closing the gap between plant research at academic institutions and the technologies available to plant breeders.

The Israel Ministry of Science's new national Plant Genome project at the Weizmann Institute intends to bridge this gap -- and put Israel on the map of plant genome efforts worldwide.

According to its coordinator, Prof. Robert Fluhr of the Institute's Plant Genetics Department, the project aims at removing the main "bottleneck" blocking the development of new transgenic crops: the isolation and characterization of genes. It offers seed companies and plant breeders the much-needed research technologies and expertise that will enable them to produce plants with higher nutritional value, better resistance to disease and other much desired properties.

Funded by the Ministry of Science, the Plant Genome project involves scientists from three research institutions: the Weizmann Institute, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The project's activities encompass a variety of undertakings involving academics, scientists in industry and plant breeders across Israel. Possible joint research with the neighboring Arab countries is also under consideration. "Agriculture has always been Israel's first bridge to international relations," says Fluhr.

Current activities in Israel include studying genes affecting leaf shape (a characteristic that enables plants to adjust to specific climatic conditions), endowing tomatoes with resistance to various diseases, and producing more color varieties in tomatoes and other plants.

The project offers plant breeders a precise genetic map of the tomato, "libraries" that contain plant genes and the technologies to introduce foreign genes into plant cells. In addition, the project offers access to unique research tools, such as the pencil-sized mini-tomato plant that carries the so-called "jumping genes." These genes "jump" along chromosomes, causing mutations, such as different colors and shapes of leaves and fruit, and can be used to isolate genes with specific functions. The mini-tomato's diminutive size turns a greenhouse into the research equivalent of a several-acre field.

Moreover, since plant and human genes are built of the same chemical constituents, the project benefits from resources and facilities available through the Institute's Human Genome Project. In particular, these include a strong bioinformatics infrastructure -- namely, the gene sequencing facilities as well as powerful computers and on-line connections that provide scientists and industries with access to daily updated, international gene data bases. The Institute's bioinformatics interface is also used to compile all the data generated within the project itself, making it available to researchers seeking to produce better crops in Israel and worldwide.