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February 02, 2009— Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Flax plant. The NAPGEN database contains approximately 180,000 ESTs from the flax species Linum usitatissimum.

Flax plant. The NAPGEN database contains approximately 180,000 ESTs from the flax species Linum usitatissimum.

That's the approximate number of genetic sequences currently held by the Natural Products Genomics (NAPGEN) research consortium, what may be the world's most prolific alliance of natural products researchers.

Established in 2005, NAPGEN links researchers from government and academia. Its members include the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute (NRC-PBI) in Saskatoon, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Alberta Research Council, and eight universities located in five provinces.

"NAPGEN aims to identify the genes involved in producing plant products with potential benefits to human health," says Lana Culley, who manages the Plant Products for Health and Wellness program at NRC-PBI. "Historically, there hasn't been as much genomics work in this area. Researchers have focused more on trying to synthesize or extract natural plant compounds than on engineering plants to make more of these compounds."

NAPGEN's 500,000 sequences — called expressed sequence tags or ESTs — collectively represent tens of thousands of genes from more than 25 different plant species, including the Madagascar periwinkle, Saskatoon berry, flax and St. John's wort. The list includes plants that contain potential pharmaceutical drugs or starting materials for synthetic pharmaceuticals, those that have high value as natural health products, and those that contain nutraceutical compounds. 

"Among our successes, using NAPGEN data, NRC researchers have identified several genes of interest from flax, as part of a collaboration involving NRC-PBI, the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatoon-based company Saponin Inc.," says Culley. "A major initiative is underway to further explore flax compounds and ways to produce these compounds." She adds that eight scientific papers have been published citing NAPGEN or NAPGEN data, and several more have been submitted or accepted for publication. 

Under the consortium agreement, when a university or government researcher seeks to identify the genes that control production of a specific plant product, NRC conducts the DNA sequencing on behalf of the researcher. Once NRC has deposited all of the sequences in the FIESTA database, a unique bioinformatics tool developed by NRC, the researcher has sole access to this data for six months. Afterwards, all NAPGEN members enjoy exclusive access to the genomics information for up to three years until it is fully released to the global research community. 

That's when FIESTA's data mining side comes in handy. "You can do a lot of comparative research using this tool," says Culley. "You can access not only your own sequences and plants of interest, but also those of other plants. So if you're investigating a specific class of gene or its products, you can search across St. John's wort, lavender, blueberries and mint — whatever is in our database — to find all the other known genes that are related."

And that gives NAPGEN members across Canada a competitive edge when it comes to investigating, developing or commercializing plant products with human health benefits.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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