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'Genes for Georgia' links biotechnology, economy
By Natasha Splaine
University of Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. -- A new University of Georgia research project will focus on the practical benefits of biotechnology, uniting genetic research with economic growth.

Aptly named "Genes for Georgia," this effort will allow UGA scientists to map out genes of plants and animals important to Georgia agriculture.

The project, funded by a two-year, $600,000 grant through the National Science Foundation's Partnerships for Innovation program, will make this information accessible to regional agricultural and biotechnology industries.

"This award will enable our scientists to explore genomes of high economic value," said UGA provost Karen Holbrook, the lead investigator. Participation of a senior administrator is an unusual requirement for the NSF program.

"Genes for Georgia" was conceived by UGA scientists Andrew Paterson, a professor of crop and soil sciences, botany and genetics, and Robert Ivarie, a professor of genetics.

The two will work to decipher the genetic codes of chicken and cotton. They will collect this information into what they call "gene encyclopedias."

A pilot project

The study will serve as a pilot project. But eventually, the researchers want to create gene encyclopedias for each of Georgia's top 10 farm commodities. Together, these 10 have an estimated economic impact of nearly $15 billion a year.

"The encyclopedias themselves will represent the 'spellings' of a large number of genes in plants and animals that are commercially important to the state of Georgia," Paterson said. He will be working on the cotton genome.

Using tissues from economically important commodities, such as cotton, peanuts or chickens, the scientists can extract and sequence DNA, discovering the "spelling" of each gene.

"Each one of these sequences becomes essentially a page in the gene encyclopedia," Ivarie said. "And these sequences identify the gene." Ivarie will sequence the chicken genome.

Gene encyclopedia

The "pages" will be compiled into an entire gene encyclopedia for that organism. They then will be made accessible on the Web with the help of computing and networking specialists.

Bio-based companies could use this information to improve the quality and yield of their products.

Transforming genetic research into economic growth requires private investment. But small, bio-based companies often can't afford this costly research. They're unable to compete with larger, national companies.

"The idea here," Ivarie said, "is to create the encyclopedias and make them available to small companies, Georgia farmers and geneticists who are working on trade improvements."

Interpreting genetic data

"Genes for Georgia" scientists will also help Georgia's bio-based industries interpret the genetic data. The program has the potential to usher in a new era of innovation for these industries, Paterson said.

To stimulate interest among these industries, the program will include workshops to educate target businesses and stakeholders. The first of these workshops is scheduled for next summer.

"We hope it will be a demonstration project," Paterson said. "We want to engage a community of stakeholders in Georgia's bio-based industries and educate them on what can be learned from a gene encyclopedia."

More information about 'Genes for Georgia' is on the Web at 001C www.plantgenome.uga.edu/g4g/ 26DA .

(Natasha Splaine is a research communications intern in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Associate Provost of the University of Georgia.)

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