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Plant Genomics Land Big Prizes

nature biotechnology volume 27 number 1 January 2009
The winners of one of the US’s largest annual competitive grant program for plant genome research have been announced. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded nearly $60 million to 20 projects focused on gene function and the interactions between genomes and the environment in economically important plants. Winning projects each receive up to $6.8 million over the next two to five years, and many involve multi-institution collaborations with international partners. Since its inception 11 years ago, the NSF’s grant program has infused nearly $800 million into plant genomics. “I’m not sure if we would’ve ever been able to sequence the maize genome without this program,” says plant genetics researcher and past recipient Clifford Weil, of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In addition to the NSF awards, the Department of Agriculture doles out each year about $13 million in competitive grants through its plant genome program, which began in 1991, and the Department of Energy in recent years has awarded more than $7 million annually in such grants. Much of this national funding is coordinated by the National Plant Genome Initiative. The effort began in 1998 after “recognition in 1998 that there wasn’t a large amount of public resources for plant genomics,” so NSF’s budget was increased, says Jane Silverthorne, a spokesperson deputy division director for the foundation. In a 2008 assessment of the National Plant Genome Initiative, the National Research Council described the program as “successful” overall. One example of a breakthrough from the initiative is the discovery of receptor molecules that bind to most major plant hormones. The NSF’s program budget is comparable to that of the whole of Europe, says Willem Stiekema, who served on the NSF grant selection committee and is a genome informatics researcher at Wageningen University, in The Netherlands.