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How to be a Weed Killer: Understanding the Secrets of the Weed Genome

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 10/10/2009

They are destructive little pests and the bain of the lives of farmers and gardeners. But weeds are finally proving to be helpful - to geneticists. Understanding the genetic code of weeds is going to have a big impact on crop yield and quality - and human medicine too!

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    Weed killer

    Just as the Human Genome Project is telling us more about basic genetics and what it is to be human as well as kick staring a flurry of innovation in medicine, so the weed genome is beginning to have a similar impact on agriculture.

    There are many labs around the world now trying to unravel the genetic code of weed plants to see what secrets lie within. This kind of genetic research is vital to understand more about a common pest that destroys crops and reduces harvests, and could also help to find out which weed killer works best.

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    Genetic code of weeds

    There have already been some successes in unravelling the basic genetics of weeds.

    Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress was the first plant to have its genome read. Under the auspices of the Arabidopsis Genome Initiative its tiny genome was published in 2000. The weed grows quickly, even in seemingly barren conditions and there is a prolific seed production. Studying the Arabidopsis genome is already yielding results. Early achievements were discovering how to double the yield of oilseed rape and protecting wheat from disease.

    Gealypic5 - Red Rice Seed Head - image released into the public domain by US Federal Govt Oryza sativa, or red rice weed has been another target of recent studies. Scientists discovered that the pest is able to absorb more nitrogen than the rice that's cultivated for food. So when nitrogen-rich fertilizers are spread over fields, they take most of the nutrients and grow bigger than the useful rice varieties.

    Now the hunt is on for the genes responsible for this nitrogen fixing. If they are located, scientists could perhaps either turn them off or use the knowledge to improve the nitrogen fixing capabilities of rice. That in turn could produce a much bigger yield.

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    Can weeds help humans?

    Genetic research into weeds can also help other branches of genetics. Lee Van Wychen, the director of science policy for the Weed Society of America observed. "By understanding more about the characteristics of weeds - both the good and the bad - we can identify new opportunities not only for agriculture, but for use on other fields, such as medical science."

    The fast reproduction rate of Arabidopsis for example make it an ideal laboratory model to test out theories and ideas. There is also extensive similarity between some plant and animal genes and it may be that we learn a lot about human disease genes from weeds. Far from being pests they could turn out to be quite useful after all.