For more than a century, Texas A&M AgriLife Research has worked to improve plants, animals, and human health. With a current focus on genomic technologies and DNA road maps, AgriLife Research is building an unprecedented understanding of gene content and genome organization. Scientists expect genomics to be the most important component of a second Green Revolution—a revolution that will help feed the world through both a greater understanding of DNA and significant improvements in crops and livestock.
Advancements in genetics, laboratory automation, and information management are helping researchers to identify and study genes and biochemical pathways that could have far-reaching effects across the health sciences, agriculture, and veterinary medicine. We are creating complete genetic road maps for humans and for many important species of plants, microbes and animals. We are working to improve our understanding of the relationship between variations in genome sequence (genotype) and variations in the organism’s physical traits and function (phenotype). And we are sharing what we learn with researchers around the world.
“Quite simply, future discoveries will be all about our ability to measure phenotype in a reproducible and sensitive way and then reduce this information to a description at the molecular level,” said Dr. Bill McCutchen, executive associate director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. “Making these discoveries will require unprecedented investments in basic and applied research, so that our ability to create knowledge from information keeps pace with our ability to produce data.”
Generating complete genome sequences for a wide range of species has allowed researchers to create a new theoretical framework for genetic discovery. Current methods of “marker-assisted” selection in plant and animal breeding allow us to identify regions of the genome responsible for important traits, such as drought and insect resistance in crops and disease resistance in livestock. Building on these results, we can create detailed maps of the genome. These genome maps help us understand the complex ways in which genes function, interact, and contribute to traits. If we can acquire enough examples of genotype variation, we can often explain a variation in phenotype.
DNA re-sequencing efforts are beginning to sketch out the nature of genome organization and diversity, providing a fresh view of the complexity of genes and genome evolution. Some gene sequences are so important that they occur in many species, remaining nearly constant through evolutionary time. Others differ markedly between species and can reveal how those organisms have solved problems in order to thrive and survive. As more species are sequenced, comparative genome analysis will allow us to identify these sequences and connect them to phenotypic variation (variations in how the trait manifests in individuals). It will be critical for scientists to be able to compare the data from these efforts with previously collected data to achieve new insights. Substantial investment in improving bioinformatics programs is necessary for us to achieve this goal.
Current and future genome-science technologies share several attributes that make a focused and applied strategic investment worthwhile:
- These technologies are generic, without any bias toward a particular organism, so technological breakthroughs will have immediate and broad application.
- Researchers can expect to see ever-greater access to more complex information for a decreasing price, so investments in genomic technologies will yield returns with increasing cost-effectiveness.
- These technologies can provide comprehensive and detailed views of DNA, RNA, proteins, and chemical compositions of cells. This information improves our ability to model, predict, and describe cellular structure and function. For example, high-resolution mass spectroscopy can generate a fingerprint of a cell’s metabolic response to stressors down to the individual compounds produced.
“Investments in genome-science technologies will help move research programs beyond simple information gathering to knowledge generation,” said McCutchen. “We can accelerate the transformation of information into knowledge by organizing our research efforts around well-defined basic and application-oriented issues.”
By maintaining diverse basic-to-applied research programs, AgriLife Research is creating opportunities for research collaborations between industry, government agencies, and universities, focusing on making discoveries that will have the greatest positive impact on society. These collaborative projects can increase the efficiency of plant and animal breeding and selection programs.
Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Father of the first Green Revolution, said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.” The second Green Revolution will be made possible using marker-assisted selection methods developed by scientists working together across multiple disciplines. As the world’s population continues to grow, these genomic advancements will be one of the keys to increasing the spread of social justice and making Earth a more peaceful planet in the 21st century.