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Stephen Howell, Plant Sciences Institute, (515) 294-5252
Bridget Bailey, News Service, (515) 294-6881


AMES, Iowa -- The Plant Sciences Institute's fifth annual symposium at Iowa State University, June 5-8, will bring together many of the world's leading researchers on plant transposable element research--a science that has made a major impact on agricultural biotechnology. This year's topic is "Transposition, Recombination and Application to Plant Genomics."

The topic has drawn much attention since it was recently discovered that half of the corn genome is made up of transposons. Transposons are mobile elements that can jump from one place in the genome to another, reshaping the genome and changing the activity of genes over time.

Iowa State has a long history of research in this area. Two Iowa State geneticists, Peter Peterson and Don Robertson, were pioneers in this field. They identified some of the first transposable elements in corn and were contemporaries of the Nobel laureate, Barbara McClintock.

Virginia Walbot, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, collaborates with Iowa State scientists on research. Walbot, one of the headline speakers at this year's symposium, used the genetic information that Robertson discovered to clone the Bronze2 gene, the gene that causes purple pigmentation in various plant leaves and husks. Walbot thinks the gene may also play a part in how a plant deals with stress.

Walbot used a method called transposon tagging to conduct her research. Transposon tagging is a means of identifying genes and analyzing the effects of altering gene expression. She said this was the first of 1,000 genes cloned by transposon tagging, now the most widely used method for identifying specific genes in maize. Walbot's laboratory also cloned and sequenced the master regulatory element, which controls the movement of mutation elements.

Iowa State's history of biotech applications continues with Dan Voytas, Iowa State professor of zoology and genetics. Voytas started Phytodyne, a company that develops and commercializes biotech methods to improve crops. Some of these methods include modifying the genome of plants to gain benefits in food, pharmaceuticals and other crop products. Their technology will allow crop researchers to edit plant genes for specific traits that could accelerate the rate of crop commercialization and reduce costs and gain efficiency for the producer, processor and consumer. They use transposon technology to improve crop production.

"The symposia have drawn attention to Iowa State as a thriving plant research community," Stephen Howell, director of the Plant Sciences Institute, said. "Iowa State has become a research leader in the Plant Sciences, and our hosting such an important symposium exemplifies our scientific leadership."

Subtopics for the symposium include the biology, mechanics, and tagging of transposons, regulation of transposition, how transposons have shaped plant genomes, and applications of transposon-mediated recombination for plant genome modification.

Headline speakers are from University of Nebraska-Lincoln; University of California-San Diego; Plant Research International, Wageningen, Netherlands; and the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

One featured lecture includes Sue Wessler, University of Georgia, Athens,who will talk on miniature inverted repeat transposable elements (MITEs).

"This is a world-class symposium with leading scientists from many different countries.

"Symposia like this inspire research, provide students, staff and faculty with new insights, and showcase Iowa State to an audience of international scientists," Howell said. He expects 150-250 scientists and students to attend.

The symposium will be in the Scheman Building in the Iowa State Center, Ames. For more information, visit

The symposium is sponsored by Iowa State's Plant Sciences Institute and the biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology department.


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