Fall 2007.
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New & Now: Fall 2007

Infectious Affection

Weathering the Storm

Petite Performer

Unlikely Presence

Into the Blue

Frog Friendly

The Ion Channel

Plaques and Tangles

Closer Look


Petite Performer

Miniature Chromosomes Pack a Big Punch

'Minichromosome technology will open new avenues and will enable many advances in agriculture.'

Could minichromosomes be the next big thing in biotech? No doubt about it, says James Birchler, a professor of biological sciences at MU. "Minichromosome technology will open new avenues and will enable many advances in agriculture," he says, including improved food and fuel crops, inexpensive pharmaceutical production and other applications in biotechnology.

Birchler is a national leader in the creation and manipulation of these tiny genetic building blocks. In May, he announced that his MU lab had discovered a method for attaching genes to lab-engineered minichromosomes, a development that will further enhance the utility of these dramatically scaled-down versions of full chromosomes. More recently he received a five-year, $1.9-million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore ways of creating and modifying maize minichromosomes.

Chromosomes, you may recall, are microscopic, bowtie-shaped bodies composed of DNA and associated proteins. Each chromosome contains both centromeres, which control duplication during cell division, and telomeres, the bow-tie's "end-caps" that prevent the accumulation of genomic damage. In between, there are genes as well as a great deal of heterochromatin, the poorly understood, difficult-to-sequence stuff that scientists used to call "junk" DNA.

Minichromosomes are engineered to shuck the genes and heterochromatin while retaining the centromeres and telomeres. The relative simplicity of the mini allows Birchler's team to "stack" genes of choice on them. Because these genes are all stacked in one place, they are more easily manipulated and transferred from one line to another. Such manipulations, in turn, open up a world of exciting possibilities. Most notably, minichromosomes could lay the groundwork for drought-, disease- and insect-resistant crops, and could further the promise of so-called "biopharming," using plants to produce medically useful proteins and metabolites.

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Published by the Office of Research.

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