IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE - The information on this site is subject to a disclaimer and a copyright notice.

European Flag

   EuropaThe European CommissionResearchPress releases

Brussels, December 13, 2000

Small plant, big science
European, American and Japanese scientists decypher the first plant genome


Full information package on the Arabidopsis page

Keywords: genome, plant, Arabidopsis thaliana

Research launched in 1991 by the European Commission and involving laboratories in 15 countries, including the United States and Japan, has been brought to successful end: on 14 December Nature will publish the first complete sequence of a plant. The analysis of the 115 million base pairs organised in nearly 26,000 genes and 5 chromosomes, reveals striking similarities with animals and humans. This major scientific breakthrough not only allows scientists to read the chapter of the “Book of life” devoted to plants but also offers opportunities for future medical, agricultural and environmental industrial applications. The sequence has been made available to the international scientific community.

Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said: "This project results from a European initiative. It shows the benefits of research co-ordination, one of the main objectives of the European Research Area initiative which we are now implementing with the Member States. The project proves again the value of international scientific co-operation when it is organised at a European level".

A press briefing will be organised in Brussels on Wednesday 13 December 2000 at 10:30. Scientific, photographic and video material will be provided. Parallel press events will be held in Washington, London and Tokyo.

The European Commission was the first institution to launch research on the Arabidopsis genome in 1991. This project was followed up in 1996 when scientists from the European Union, the United States and Japan founded the Arabidopsis Genome Initiative. From 1991 to 1999 EUR 26 million were provided for the sequencing of Arabidopsis.

The rich harvest of genes and analyses will help to understand the functions of many genes in plants. “This knowledge has profound significance for mankind and our quest to balance food and the protection of environment”, declares Mike Bevan from the John Innes Centre of Norwich (UK), one of the European co-ordinators.

Arabidopsis follow up projects

The research goes on: While the sequence of the genome is released, with 10 % of the genes already characterised experimentally, many predicted genes need to be experimentally validated. Moreover, the function of 30 % of the predicted genes remains completely unknown. The determination of the function of all the Arabidopsis genes definitively constitutes one of the most exciting challenge for the coming years.

Therefore in this year two new projects were funded: EXOTIC - Exon trapping Insert Consortium – and REGIA – Regulatory Gene Initiative in Arabidopsis. They will play a key part in the ‘genomics revolution’ by linking the Arabidopsis genome to a precise description of gene activity. A third project ECCO – European cell cycle consortium – aims to isolate and study genes controlling plant cell division, again using Arabidopsis as a tool.

The three projects are part of the Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources Programme and supported by a contribution from the European Union of EUR 14 million.

Why Arabidopsis?

Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) is an annual weed growing in the paths and walls of gardens, and is related to the cabbage and mustard family of plants. It has become an important experimental organism because it has a small genome and is convenient to grow in the laboratory and has a prolific seed set. It also grows in diverse habitats, from the Arctic to the equator; this adaptability is of great interest to scientists.

The European Commission, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Japanese Chiba Prefecture were the main contributors to this Initiative. Laboratories from the European Union, from the United States and from Japan sequenced 115 million base pairs which encode nearly 26,000 genes more than any other of the completely sequenced and analysed genomes so far.

“In comparison with the yeast genome we made a great leap forward, as the Arabidopsis genome is 10 times bigger than yeast, it contains 5 times more genes and the genome is much more complex. Furthermore the quality of the sequencing is better”, says Werner Mewes from the Munich Information Centre for Protein Sequences.

Evolution and duplication of the genome

Analysis of the sequence has revealed a dynamic genome, enriched by transfer of bacterial genes from the precursor of the plastid. “Although Arabidopsis is the flowering plant which displays the smallest genome, it turns out that 58 % of the genome is duplicated”, say Marcel Salanoubat and Francis Quétier from Genoscope (Fr), co-ordinators of one of the two EC consortia involved in the initiative. The Arabidopsis genome underwent a likely complete duplication approximately 110 million years ago. Genome duplication has played a large role in shaping the genomes of crop plants, and the analysis of the Arabidopsis sequence now provides major opportunities to understand chromosome behaviour and how evolution deals with duplicated genes. Arabidopsis centromeres curiously contain some 50 genes which are expressed. Plants synthesise all their nutrients from air water and minerals in the soil. This remarkable metabolic capacity is due in part to genes derived from a photosynthetic bacteria related to present-day cyanobacteria, denizens of hot pools. These genes have evolved by transfer to the nucleus.

Understanding of plant processes

The implications arising from the genome sequence of the first plant extend beyond basic science. Scientists can now be expected to achieve a very detailed understanding of processes unique to plants, such as their complex and unique metabolism, how they interact with their environment, and how they cope with a vast array of pests and diseases. From the genes of Arabidopsis it will be increasingly possible to predict, identify and isolate most genes in any plant and so the present discoveries provide a leap forward for improving the value of all plants, including the key crops. “The knowledge now available is likely to be of similar value to people as the sequence of all the human genes, because everyone will benefit directly from the improvements in food supplies that will follow from a deeper understanding of plants”, explains Mike Bevan.

Comparison with animals The completion of the sequencing extends the value of Arabidopsis genetics beyond the range of plant biology. Initial comparisons of the genome sequence of a plant with those of the fruit fly Drosophila and the nematode worm provides a comprehensive survey of the evolution of cellular processes in these highly different life forms. One of the surprises arising from this is that plants, although apparently very different from flies and worms and humans, use many similar components for similar cellular functions. This deep conservation of cell functions revealed provides foundations for linking research between diverse organisms, leading to an efficient broadening of the scope of biological investigation. Sometimes different proteins in plants have been recruited to perform similar functions in flies and plants and worms.

Additional material on the web:

For further information:

Stephane Hogan, Quality of Life Programme, Research DG
Tel: + 32 2 296 29 65, E-mail:Research Contact

Michel Claessens, Communication Unit, Research DG,
Tel: + 32 2 295 99 71, E-mail:

Brussels, 13 December 2000

Press conference programme

(Simultaneous interpretation into English, French and German will be available)


Time Title Speaker
10:30 Introduction A. Mitsos, Director General,
DG Research
10:40 The Arabidopsis sequencing project Prof. Francis Quetier, Genoscope, Centre National de Séquençage, Evry (FR)
10:50 Assembling & analysing the genome Dr. Werner Mewes, Max-Planck-Institut für Biochemie, Munich (DE)
11:00 Applications & socio-economic impact Dr. Marc Zabeau, Institute for Biotechnology, Gent (BE)
11:10 Follow-up projects Javier Paz-Ares, Centro Nacional de Biotechnologia, Madrid (ES)
11:20 Questions  
12:00 Buffet lunch  

For more information about the European Union’s research activities in the field of life sciences and technologies:

For more information on the Research DG, and previous press releases, visit our Web site at:

The EC’s Arabidopsis thaliana sequencing projects (1991 – 2000)

1. EU Sequencing on Arabidopsis chromosome 3

Funded trough the EC’s Biotechnology programme (1994 – 1998), BIOTECH 2
Project funding:          5 million Euro
Project reference:       BIO4980549
Duration:                    1998 – 2000
EC scientific officer: Alessio Vassarotti,


Francis Quétier, Marcel Salanoubat, Genoscope; Centre National de Séquençage, Evry, (FR), Tel: 33 1 60 87 25 00, E-mail:,


The EC’s Arabidopsis thaliana sequencing projects (1991 – 2000)

2. Plant genome sequencing project

Funded trough the EC’s Biotechnology programme (1994 – 1998), BIOTECH 2
Project reference:        BIO4980274
Duration:                     1998 – 2000
EC Project funding:     5 million Euro
EC scientific officer: Alessio Vassarotti, E-mail:


Michael Bevan, John Innes Centre, Norwich, (UK), Tel: 0044 1 603 45 25 71, E-mail:


The EC’s Arabidopsis thaliana sequencing projects (1991 – 2000)

3. The Arabidopsis genome project

Funded trough the EC’s Biotechnology programme (1994 – 1998), BIOTECH 2
Project Reference:        BIO4960338
Project Funding:           6 million ECU
Duration:                      1996 – 1998

Andrew Beadle, AMICA Science EEIG, John Innes Centre, Norwich, (UK), Tel: 0044 1603 45 25 71, E-mail:


4. European scientists sequencing Arabidopsis ESSA

Funded trough the EC’s Biotechnology programme (1988 – 1992), Biotech 1
Project Funding:        5’7 million ECU
Project Reference:     BIO2930075
Duration:                   1993 – 1997

Michael Bevan, John Innes Centre, Norwich, (UK), Tel: 0044 1 603 45 25 71, E-mail:


5. Molecular identification of new plant genes

Funded trough the EC’s Bridge programme (1990 - 1994)
Project Funding:         4’6 million ECU
Project Reference:     BIOT CT-900207
Duration:                   1991 - 1993

Michael Bevan, John Innes Centre, Norwich, (UK), Tel: 0044 1 603 45 25 71, E-mail:

EC scientific officer: Alessio Vassarotti, E-mail:

The EC’s Arabidopsis thaliana follow-up projects (2000 – 2003)

1. Regulatory gene initiative in Arabidopsis REGIA

Funded trough the EC’s Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources programme (1998 – 2002), QoL
Project reference:        QLG2-1999-00876
Duration:                     2000 - 2003
EC Project funding:     8,5 million Euro

Javier Paz-Ares, Centro Nacional, de Biotecnologia, Madrid, (ES), Telephone 0034 91 585 45 04, E-mail:

2. Exon Trapping insert consortium EXOTIC

Funded trough the EC’s Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources programme (1998 – 2002), QoL
Project reference:        QLG2-1999-00351
Duration:                     2000 - 2003
EC Project funding:     2,7 million Euro

Michael Bevan, John Innes Centre, Norwich, (UK), Tel: 0044 1 603 45 25 71, E-mail:

3. European cell cycle consortium ECCO

Funded trough the EC’s Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources programme (1998 – 2002), QoL
Project reference:        QLG2-1999-00454
Duration:                     2000 - 2003
EC Project funding:     3 million Euro

Miguel Freire, Cropdesign, Versailles, (FR), Telephone 0033 130 83 30 10, E-mail:

EC scientific officer: Bernard Mulligan, E-mail:

Search Top
PRESS RELEASES | 20.12.2000