Science - September 23, 2004

Nightshades unite enthusiastic researchers

More than 250 scientists from all corners of the globe met in Wageningen this week to discuss the plant family Solanaceae, the nightshades. The diversity of this family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes and petunias, inspired the researchers to form a unique network, without a formal research programme.

The Solanaceae family consists of about three thousand plants. It is an economically important group, containing a large number of food crops, stimulants and ornamental plants. The diversity of the group, together with its relative genetic uniformity, makes it an ideal group to study the relationship between genotype and phenotype.
‘The members of the Solanaceae family are genetically very similar, but in appearance they differ as much as night and day. The diversity automatically leads you to one of the most important questions facing biologists: how can such a genetically uniform group show so much variety in appearance?

‘This fundamental question forms the basis of the Solanaceae project, in addition to the question how we can make the best use of this huge amount of biodiversity for the various needs of humanity,’ says Dr Steven Tanksley, a genome researcher at Cornell University in the US, and one of the initiators of the international Solanaceae Genome Network (SGN).

A year after the launch, scientists from more than fifty countries have already joined the virtual network. Dutch participation is through the Centre for BioSystem Genomics (CBSG), a public-private genomics initiative for genetic research on potato, tomato and Arabidopsis based in Wageningen. Tanksley spoke earlier this week in Wageningen at the first international SGN workshop, hosted by the CBSG.

Tanksley is so enthusiastic about the project that at times he seems to be spreading a completely new philosophy. ‘The project is an example of how science will look in twenty years’ time. We unite researchers from all kinds of disciplines around one central issue/question. In this way we form a worldwide network, where each participant contributes his or her own expertise. It is literally science without borders,’ explains Tanksley.

Taxonomist Dr Sandra Knapp, a botanist at the Natural History Museum in London echoes his sentiments: ‘The questions we are trying to answer go right back to Charles Darwin. Since his time we have really only come up with answers to small details; there’s no room at the moment for really big ideas. But we have to rethink the big questions.’ Tanksley even goes so far as to say we are suffering from ‘a hundred years of amnesia’.

According to the geneticist Dr Dani Zamir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, the original aim of the network – to map the genome of the tomato in the same way as was done for the model plant Arabidopsis and rice – has grown by itself. ‘For me, sequencing the tomato has now become something we just have to chew through in order to get to the biology of this plant group. The most exciting part is the biodiversity. As far as I’m concerned the greatest challenge for us is to make more funds available to researchers from developing countries so that they can join the network. After all, many of these jewels originated in these areas,’ according to Zamir.

In Tanksley’s opinion, the network should concentrate on finding a ‘new form of breeding based on natural biodiversity’. He regards classical and marker-driven breeding as the main methods; genetic modification will have to be satisfied with a secondary role. / GvM

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