Were you there? Arabidopsis as a model plant

Categories: Arabidopsis
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Published on: February 26, 2013
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.

On 14 December 2000, after ten years of work from scientists in more than 50 research groups from all over the world, The Arabidopsis Genome Initiative published the first analysis of the A. thaliana genome in Nature (408:796-815). The collective authorship recognised that this huge project was only possible due to the research community working together.

The world-wide effort to sequence the genome brought together a global research community in a way that had never been done before. Importantly, the resulting data were made public and the community continued to grow as new researchers used and built on the data. Along with the Human Genome Project, the first draft of which was released in the same year, it set the precedent for public scientific databases.

Selection of A. thaliana ecotypes

Today, community projects on the Arabidopsis genome are still on going.  One notable example, the 1001 Genomes Project, was a change in direction for the plant science community. Rather than looking within the genome to understand specific molecular processes, the 1001 Genomes Project is a genome-wide association study that aims to link genetic variants to physical variation in Arabidopsis thaliana ecotypes from all over the world.

The Arabidopsis Genome project changed plant science in the 1990s by giving researchers a common cause and community resources. Although other plant species now also have extensive ‘omics databases, Arabidopsis researchers are still the pioneers of plant science. Now, as it was 30 years ago, Arabidopsis thaliana is the first choice for researching the fundamentals of plant science and the starting point exciting, innovative new projects.

References and more information

Somerville and Koorneef (2002) A fortunate choice: the history of Arabidopsis as a model plant. Nature Reviews Genetics 3:883 doi:10.1038/nrg927

Meyerowitz (2001) Prehistory and History of Arabidopsis Research. Plant Physiology 125:15-19 doi: 10.1104/pp.125.1.15

TAIR: About Arabidopsis webpages

Image credits: Painting of A. thaliana by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; A. thaliana ecotypes c/o Envel Kerdaffrec, Gregor Mendel Institute.

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