Foxtail millet offers clues to assemble switchgrass genome
click image to zoomKatrien Devos, University of GeorgiaFoxtail millet (S. italica) panicle. Arranging DNA fragments into a genome sequence that scientists can interpret is a challenge often compared to assembling a puzzle, except there is no box to provide an idea of what the picture is even supposed to be. Sometimes there's guidance in the form of other publicly-available DNA sequences from related organisms that can be used to guide the assembly process, but its usefulness depends on how closely related any two sequences are to one another. For example, a reference genome might be so distantly related from the one being assembled, it would be akin to comparing a Model-T to a contemporary hybrid car.
For researchers interested in switchgrass, a perennial grass that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is investigating as a prospective biofuels feedstock, assembling the plant genome poses an even more complicated puzzle than usual because it has multiple copies of its chromosomes. The DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI), in an international partnership that includes the DOE BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) and the DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), two of the three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers, has sequenced plant genomes of related candidate bioenergy crops such as sorghum and the model grass Brachypodium. Both plants have been used as references for switchgrass, however sorghum last shared a common ancestor with switchgrass more than 20 million years ago while Brachypodium last shared a common ancestor with switchgrass more than 50 million years ago. The genome of a much closer switchgrass relative—foxtail millet (Setaria italica)—is described in the May 13, 2012 edition of Nature Biotechnology. All three genomes, along with those of other plants sequenced by the DOE JGI are publicly accessible on http://www.phytozome.net/.
"We're not thinking of Setariaas a biofuel crop per se but as a very informative model since its genome is so structurally close to switchgrass," said Jeff Bennetzen, a BESC researcher, the study's co-first author and a professor at the University of Georgia. He originally proposed that the DOE JGI sequence the foxtail millet genome under the 2008 Community Sequencing Program.
One of the challenges in studying grasses for bioenergy applications is that they typically have long lifecycles and complex genomes. Jeremy Schmutz, head of the DOE JGI Plant Program at the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology, pointed out that foxtail millet has several advantages as a model. It's a compact genome roughly half a billion bases in size, and large quantities of it can be grown in small spaces in just a few months.