One of the reasons Arabidopsis was chosen was that its genome is tiny even compared to other plants. Whereas maize has 2,500 Mb (million base pairs) and wheat has 16,000 Mb, Arabidopsis has only about 120 Mb, although contained within this is a complete set of genes for controlling developmental patterns, metabolism, responses to environmental cues and disease resistance, making it useful for research into a number of areas. As well as its small genome, its short life span and prolific seed production have also helped to make it an ideal choice for scientists to study and use in experiments.
However so far less than 10% of the plant's 26,000 genes have been studied to determine their effects, despite a large and open research community. But with this development, four years ahead of schedule, it is hoped that the pace of research will pick up.
It is hoped that advances in plant genetics such as this will enable scientists to develop superior strains of crop plants such as rice, wheat, soya and maize. Indeed, genes from Arabidopsis have already been used to double the yield from oilseed rape and to increase the disease resistance of wheat. An effort is underway to sequence the genome of rice, the staple food for half of the world's population.
It is estimated that the world's population will have doubled by 2050, and food production will have to increase by at least the same factor to ensure that everyone can be fed. Methods such as the use of biological fertilizers, pest control and soil and water conservation can all be used to increase agricultural productivity, but it is the use of transgenic plant varieties that seems to hold out the most promise of acheiving the necessary increase in productivity, especially in areas where conditions are marginal at best.
However of course, not everyone agrees that genetically engineered crops will solve the problem of hunger. Many argue that shortages are related to social, economic and political factors rather than any real shortage, and that any attempt to provide more food without addressing these issues is doomed to failure. Others argue that transgenic crops could pose biological dangers both to humans and animals as well as other crops.
Are transgenic crops a good thing, or should be be looking for alternative solutions instead?
The paper on the sequencing of Arabidopsis thaliana can be found here at Nature.