Would you like gene chips with your salad?

The first public release of plant gene chip information is being launched at the Society for Experimental Biology conference in Swansea on Friday 12th April. Scientists from the Nottingham Arabidopsis Stock Centre (NASC), part of a multi-million pound resource network, will announce a newly accessible plant gene chip database which is available through the internet.

Unlike in GATTACA, where a drop of Ethan Hawke`s blood or an eyelash could tell you what genes he had, gene chips can tell you much more; not only which genes are there, but also how active they are, and therefore – what they may be doing.

Gene chips are produced in a similar manner to silicon chips, but instead of wires and transistors, the chips are covered with nucleotides and `virtual genes`. These chips allow scientists to take a small sample of an organism and then electronically show the simultaneous state of thousands of the RNA products from genes in that organism. This potentially gives you a `barcode` for the plant or animal and can be used in applications stretching from basic research to the real-time effects of GM manipulation, providing an exhaustive `contents` list for a transgenic organism. The `barcode` allow you to take a snapshot of the state of an organism telling you, for example, which genes are switched on in response to different exposures of light in a flower. The data is generated using Affymetrix gene chip technology and has been one of the hottest applications in the biological community for the last few years.

The gene chip is currently the only available chip for plants and covers the model plant Arabidopsis, at present covering 8000+ genes, to be increased to the plant`s full complement of 25 000 genes later this year. Arabidopsis is widely used in plant research because it is the only plant with a fully published and publicly available genome sequence.

“It is now possible to take a GM plant, compare it to a standard plant using gene chips, and precisely see ALL of the changes that have occurred. This takes away a great deal of the unknowns in genetic manipulation and will make the analysis of trangenic crops a more exact science,” says Dr Sean May, director of NASC.

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