The Maize Genetics Executive Committee (MGEC)

Jeff Bennetzen
Department of Biological Sciences
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN

With the advent of the genomics era and the unparalleled opportunities this provides, it has become apparent that maize genetics has suffered both from a lack of visibility within the life sciences community and from the absence of a community-wide vision for the future of our discipline. In March of 1999, Ed Coe assembled an informal group to discuss the future of maize research and how it might be facilitated. Over a several month period in 1999, this committee polled members of the maize genetics community (defined as subscribers to or to the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter) for their opinions of the current limitations to pursuing maize genetics research. The poll was conducted informally at meetings and in other conversations. The poll results indicated that deficiencies in maize transformation technology stood out as a limitation to the pursuit of the highest quality maize genetics. A subgroup of the informal committee (Jeff Bennetzen, Vicki Chandler and Pat Schnable) traveled to Washington DC on April 13 of 2000 to meet with the senior staff at NSF that deal with proposals related to plant genetics. Comparable staff at the USDA were also invited, but were unable to attend. As an outcome of these discussions, the guidelines for both the NSF Plant Genome and USDA IFAS programs were changed to include wording that indicated a particular interest of these agencies to receive proposals that addressed improving the efficiency and broadening the germplasm amenable to maize transformation. Several such proposals were received and at least one was funded in 2001.

Earlier, Torbert Rocheford had decided to organize a meeting at Allerton Illinois that would bring together a manageably small group of maize researchers to discuss the past, present, and future of maize genetics. At this Allerton meeting (March 10-12, 1999), and at the Maize Genetics Conference held in Lake Geneva directly afterwards, informal discussions yielded the consensus that a permanent committee should be formed. The charge to this group would be to gather information about the needs and interests of the maize genetics community, and then to communicate this information to interested parties within the industrial, academic, charitable and governmental sectors worldwide. Nearly all discussants agreed that this group should center its activities on issues confronting maize geneticists in the public sector, because the private sector already has its own voice amply supported by lobbyists and other communication organs. The Maize Genetics Executive Committee (MGEC) was chosen as the name for this new permanent committee, and it was decided that it should be elected by a vote of the entire maize genetics community

In accordance with these ideas, nominations and an election were held in May of 2000 for ten positions on the MGEC. The first elected members were Jeff Bennetzen, Jim Birchler, Vicki Chandler, Ed Coe, Mike Freeling, Sarah Hake, Ron Phillips, Pat Schnable, Virginia Walbot, and Sue Wessler. Not surprisingly, because so many of the members of the community are based in the US, no overseas nominee received sufficient votes to join the Committee. Hence, the elected MGEC members asked Jane Langdale to join the Committee to provide an international perspective, and she generously accepted. The MGEC elected Jeff Bennetzen as chair for its first year. We also decided that members should have five-year terms. By random draw, this first set of MGEC members were given positions of 1 to 5 years, so that two member would rotate off of the committee each year. Jeff Bennetzen and Ron Phillips were the first two members to have their seats expire, in 2001. In June of 2001, they were both re-elected, and Jeff Bennetzen was also re-elected chair by the MGEC.

An early activity of the elected MGEC was to assist Ed Coe in his efforts to evaluate the performance of MaizeDB. This process has involved numerous communications between MaizeDB staff and members of the MGEC. In addition, the MGEC conducted a brief survey of opinions about MaizeDB at the 2001 Maize Genetics Conference.

A second activity of the MGEC has been to publicize its existence, both by electronic means and by invited presentations of MGEC members at various meetings. We hope that creating awareness of the MGEC (and its functions) will alert the broader life sciences community to the fact that the maize genetics community is becoming more organized and proactive.

A third activity of the MGEC in its first year was to compose a letter in support of increased funding for individual investigator awards at the USDA CSREES NRI program. This letter was discussed and approved in open forum at the 2001 Maize Genetics Conference, and then sent to numerous Senators and Congresspersons that sit on committees that are involved in the funding of the USDA. Although many replies were received, it is not clear whether these letters had any significant effect.

Within the MGEC, numerous email discussions were generated concerning a vision for the Maize Genetics Community and what steps should be taken to validate this vision. Using our own insights and the results of the earlier informal poll, the MGEC came up with two written statements that were meant to describe highlighted and comprehensive visions for the future of maize genetics. These documents were discussed in open forum of all attendees at the 2001 Maize Genetics Conference. The broader community suggested some revisions to these documents, and the revised documents have been sent to appropriate programs within NSF, the USDA and to the National Corn Growers Association.

Beyond the suggested revisions, a significant contribution by the attendees at the 2001 Maize Genetics Conference was their agreement that sequencing the maize genome is now the highest priority for the maize genetics community. Following this recommendation, the MGEC has undertaken several actions to bring about a Maize Genome Sequencing Project. Progress along these lines will be discussed in another contribution to this year's Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter.

For the future, the MGEC hopes to continue its mission to identify both the needs and the opportunities for maize genetics, and to communicate this information to the broadest possible life science community. This community includes scientists, funding sources for scientists, and the end users for the accomplishments of maize genetics, from farmers to consumers. In the next year, the MGEC plans to (1) further pursue efforts to support sequencing the maize genome, (2) conduct a second poll, this time in greater depth and breadth, of the needs of the maize community, and (3) develop a Web presence for the MGEC. This internet face of the MGEC should contain information on the goals, membership, organizational processes and contributions of the MGEC. The MGEC, through its members, is open to (and eager for) suggestions from all members of the maize genetics community about future actions. We hope to provide a dependable and adaptable resource to serve the maize genetics community.

Please Note: Notes submitted to the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter may be cited only with consent of the authors.

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