World’s largest plant DNA project at University of Alberta starting to sprout …

Nothing like it had ever been tried before.

In 2008, the Alberta government announced it was funding star recruit Gane Ka-Shu Wong at the University of Alberta to start an unprecedented project to study the gene sequences of 1,000 plants.

Information from the $2-million project was expected to lead to agricultural, environmental and human health advances as well as shedding new light on plant evolution.

Six years later, the University of Alberta’s 1,000 Plants Initiative (1KP) has published its first findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The following is a condensed, edited question-and-answer with Wong on the project.

Q: Why was the 1,000 Plants Initiative launched?

A: “It was basically to make some sort of a splash and get some attention for the university and the province.�

Q: Why hasn’t a wide-ranging analysis of plant DNA been done previously instead of just focusing on certain food crops like rice?

A: “It was a prioritization process with economic and other considerations … Under that criteria, a lot of other things never made the cut.�

Q: Your project was funded publicly and privately with no set directions on what plants to analyze. Did that make a difference in what you were able to do?

A: “I’m doing something that no one else in the world was able to do because I didn’t have to run the gauntlet of prioritizing plants on the basis of this is an important crop.�

Q: Did you make it to 1,000 plants?

A: “Over 1,000. Twelve hundred or something. … If you count flowering plants, there’s about half a million plants so we’re not doing every known species.�

Q: What plants did you study?

A: “We’ve done literally everything: flowering plants, non-flowering plants, crops, trees, algae — we did a lot of algae, moss.�

Q: Why is it important to map so many obscure plant DNA sequences and not just important agricultural crops?

A: “There are a lot of problems that Mother Nature has already solved that we can get if we’re willing to look. … We can’t search where everybody’s been looking because we would have found it. Half of all known approved medicines have plant origins.�

Q: How is the data from 1KP being used?

A: “I invited the world, or at least people I know and trust, to look at the data and to see what they could find in it.�

Q: What are some discoveries coming out of your data?

A: “The MIT-Harvard group has discovered some interesting proteins that are used to study human and mammalian brains, including developing pharmaceuticals for blindness. … People are mining the data set for things like proteins for neuroscience or drugs. There’s a number of drug discoveries that have not published yet because they have to validate findings.�

Q: There were also findings on how plants evolved that you found surprising?

A: “Most genes are inherited from mother and father but in horizontal gene transfer, there’s transfer of a gene from one species to another unrelated species. … It’s considered extremely rare. We found a horizontal gene transfer from a hornwort to a fern (that allowed ferns to thrive in shade). … The reason that this caught the attention of the New York Times and The Economist is that the GMO crowd likes to tell you the transfer of one gene to an unrelated species to another is unnatural and unhealthy.�

Q: How hard was it to obtain samples of 1,200 plants from around the world?

A: “We needed live samples so that took a few years just because of the seasonality problems. … If we could get it out of a botanical garden, that’s the first choice because it was easier, and there was a lot of paperwork involved in getting things from some obscure rainforest or mountain and shipping it across the world. But that said, yes, some people have climbed mountains.�

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