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Crop researchers helping researchers

By Staff | May 1, 2009

Researchers at the Crops Genome Informatics Laboratory at Iowa State University pose for a group photo. They are, from left: Front row — David Hessel, Carolyn Lawrence, David Grant and Darwin Campbell. Back row — Nathan Weeks, Sudhansu Dash, Ethalinda Cannon, Rex Nelson, Taner Sen and Carson Andorf.

AMES – For just a little more than one year now, the old agronomy laboratory on the campus of Iowa State University has been transformed into the Crop Genome Informatics Laboratory, a new home for computational biologists.

Claiming to be the largest cluster of plant databases in the nation, the genome lab is where researchers from both ISU and the Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research Unit, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, are located.

Carolyn Lawrence, research geneticist with USDA-ARS and who also coordinates activities for the facility, said that prior to opening the new laboratory, scientists were scattered all across campus. Just having everyone under one roof, is showing some big advantages, she said.

“We used to communicate through e-mails and it would take days just to get an answer. It’s the little things like that and being close by that speed up work because we’re here together talking about things,” said Lawrence. “We are improving efficiency and what we can offer people.”

The new location, Lawrence said, also features resources like space for all of the researchers to sit together and a better place for visitors as well as resources for Web conferencing and a space to train database users on and off campus.

One of the big advantages of having all of the scientists under one roof rather than scattered around campus is the ease of communicating together as are, from left, researchers David Hessel, Rex Nelson, Taner Sen and Carson Andorf.

Funding for the renovation came from both USDA and ISU included $225,000 from ARS; $150,000 from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; $100,000 from the Plant Sciences Institute; $85,000 from the agronomy department and $25,000 from the genetics, development and cell biology department.

“Our goal is to advance the science of bioinformatics to the point that we can utilize these huge databases for the benefits of other researchers,” said Les Lewis, former research leader of the Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research Unit and chair of the ISU entomology department, in a statement. “The bottom line is to benefit farmers who are growing soybeans, corn, barley and other crops.”

Lawrence said the laboratory is home to a number of database resources. The Maize Genetics and Genomics Database is the project Lawrence leads. It serves information about corn.

Other database groups working the building include a sequence data resource called Plant Genome Database, SoyBase and the Soybean Breeder’s Toolbox and the Plant Expression Database.

These online resources provide tools that help researchers make use of biological information for crop improvement. The databases are available to researchers on campus and all around the word.

Carolyn Lawrence is a research geneticist with the USDA-ARS, and is project leader for MaizeGDB and also coordinates activities for the Crop Genome Informatics Laboratory.

The genome lab is also home base for an outreach program for Native American students, Lawrence said.

According to Lawrence, the involvement of Native American students and researchers in plant genome research is minimal. The outreach program aims to increase their representation in the research community.

Participating students study various plant species, including corn, which is a plant of importance to many native American tribes. They work with ARS North Central Regional Plant Introduction scientists to carry out field-work and to collect and preserve plant material. They use the MaizeGDB tam to document the work they do each summer via a project Web site.

“Incorporating plant genome research with these students’ cultural understanding of corn really has made for an interesting and successful program. We have been most successful in recruiting Navajo students, both because we made good connections with members of that tribe early on and because Navajo revere corn,” said Lawrence.

The USDA has been working on plant breeding and genetics on the Iowa State campus since 1922. Crop and plant biological data have been collected over the years and put into databases, which have continued to grow and evolve.

Contact Kriss Nelson by e-mail at jknelson@frontiernet.net.

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