Arabidopsis and Transformation

Another property that endears Arabidopsis to plant molecular biologists is that it is easily transformed. Transformation is a method for introducing foreign DNA into an organism. This technique is invaluable for studying how genes function and interact with other genes. Biologists usually transform plants by infecting them with genetically engineered varieties of a bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In nature, when Agrobacterium infects plants, it inserts certain genes directly into the plant cells, causing a disease called crown gall. The genetically engineered Agrobacterium strains have had their disease-causing genes removed. They can still infect a plant and insert their DNA, but do not cause a disease. To transform plants, the molecular biologist inserts the foreign gene to be studied into Agrobacterium, which will then transfer the gene to a plant that it infects. This transformation technique does not work well on many other plant species, limiting the utility of those plants for molecular genetic analysis.

Arabidopsis researchers also use a variation on the Agrobacterium-mediated transformation technique to introduce mutations in the plant. Studying the effect of a mutation in a particular gene often yields critical information about the normal function of that gene. Because Agrobacterium inserts its transforming DNA randomly in the genome, in many cases the DNA gets inserted directly within a gene sequence. This usually destroys the function of the disrupted gene, resulting in a "knockout mutant." Furthermore, the piece of transformed DNA (T-DNA) that is inserted in the disrupted plant gene can serve as a flag for tracking down the gene by molecular biology methods. Large-scale projects using this T-DNA insertion technique are underway to mutate, identify, and characterize every gene in the Arabidopsis genome.

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