A reproduction of a painting by C. A. M. Lindman (1856–1928)
The history of Arabidopsis as a model organism and of the Arabidopsis Genome Project is the story of the birth of modern plant science, full of visionaries and phenomenal teamwork. No doubt some readers of this blog were present at the dawn of the Age of Arabidopsis, but many others think of Arabidopsis as an established part of the plant science landscape. I myself can’t imagine pre-Arabidopsis plant research, before seed stock catalogues, genome sequences, and BLAST. For all you early career Arabidopsis researchers this is your opportunity to catch up on the history of this most-researched weed. For those of you who remember it, I hope I got most of it right!
German scientist Friedrich Laibach first suggested Arabidopsis as a plant model species in 1943. He noted that A. thaliana was easy and fast to grow, showed a lot of natural variation, was amenable to cross-breeding between varieties, and generated a lot of progeny. By the 1960s a number of researchers in Germany and a few elsewhere were working on Arabidopsis.
The first annual Arabidopsis Information Service was put together by Gerhard Röbbelen in 1964, and you can read an electronic version of it on TAIR. It is interesting to see the kind of research going on in the ’60s – authors report X-ray and biochemical mutants, growth and development under certain conditions, and methods to induce mutations and grow sterile seedlings on agar. A year later, the first Arabidopsis Symposium met in Göttingen. You can see a picture of the delegates here.
It took twenty more years for Arabidopsis to became widely used worldwide. Albert Kranz, at the Botanical Institute of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, collected and maintained Arabidopsis seed stock for the community and took over the Arabidopsis Information Service in 1974. During this time, early identification of embryo-lethal mutants and the small genome size, and by the end of the 1980s, reliable Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer, were all added to the list of benefits to working with Arabidopsis.
In 1989, James Watson, by then the Director of Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, called a meeting to discuss the use of Arabidopsis as a model for genetic research. A year later, the newly formed Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee (Marc van Montagu, Caroline Dean, Richard Flavell, Howard Goodman, Maarten Koornneef, Elliot Meyerowitz, Jim Peacock, Yoshiro Shimura and Chris Somerville) published a report outlining plans to sequence the whole Arabidopsis thaliana genome. At the time, the project sounded overly ambitious and unlikely to be completed – A. thaliana has a relatively small genome, but at around 120 million base pairs long it was a mammoth project. (more…)